Most Christian churches today, encompassing the vast majority of Christians, teach that God consists of a Trinity of three Persons called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This doctrine emerged with the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and was stated more explicitly in the Athanasian Creed a century or two later. From there it became dominant in Christianity as a whole.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) rejected the doctrine of a Trinity of Persons in God, saying instead that there is a Trinity of essential components in a single Person of God.
Followers of Swedenborg’s theology have historically been in a lonely position among Christians due to their rejection of the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity. However, in the early 1900s another movement, called Oneness Pentecostalism, arose that also rejected that doctrine.
The question naturally arises, then, whether Oneness Pentecostals agree with Swedenborg’s theology about the nature of God and the Trinity.
Here is the short answer, stated from the perspective of Swedenborg’s theology:
Swedenborg does agree with modalists, including Oneness Pentecostals, in affirming the full divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while denying that they are three persons.
This has led to the common error of labeling Swedenborg and Swedenborgians “modalist.”
However, Swedenborg rejects the essential, defining modalist doctrine: that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes or manifestations of God to human beings.
Swedenborg, and Swedenborgians, are therefore not modalist in their doctrines and beliefs.
Now for a fuller answer.
First, we need to define God from the modalist, Oneness Pentecostal, and Swedenborgian perspectives.
The Sabellian or Modalist doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
As defined on Wikipedia, this is the Sabellian or modalist conception of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
Sabellianism in the Eastern church or Patripassianism in the Western church (also known as modalism, modalistic monarchianism, or modal monarchism) is the nontrinitarian or anti-trinitarian belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes or aspects of one monadic God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons within the Godhead—that there are no real or substantial differences among the three, such that there is no substantial identity for the Spirit or the Son.
The Oneness Pentecostal doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
As defined on Wikipedia, this is the Oneness Pentecostal conception of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
The Oneness doctrine . . . states that there is one God, a singular divine Spirit, who manifests himself in many ways, including as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (a.k.a. Holy Spirit).
The Our Beliefs page of the website of the United Pentecostal Church International, which is the largest Oneness Pentecostal denomination, expresses its basic beliefs about God in this way:
There is one God, who has revealed Himself as our Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is God manifested in flesh. He is both God and man.
Emanuel Swedenborg’s doctrine of God as being Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
In True Christianity #163, Swedenborg defines the Trinity of God in this way:
- There is a divine Trinity, which is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- These three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are three essential components of one God. They are one the way our soul, our body, and the things we do are one.
(Note that although Swedenborg regularly uses the word “Trinity,” by traditional Christian definitions of “trinitarian” he is non-trinitarian because he rejects the idea that the Trinity consists of three persons, but states instead that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit constitute a single divine person, who is the one God.)
Swedenborg’s doctrine of God is incompatible with, and denies, modalism
Swedenborg’s theology agrees with Oneness Pentecostal doctrine in denying that there are three persons of God, denying that there was any “Son born from eternity,” and affirming that the Son (and the Holy Spirit also) came into existence with the birth of Jesus Christ.
However, Swedenborg’s theology rejects the defining characteristic of modalist doctrine, which is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different modes of God, or three different ways that God manifests himself to humans.
Instead, Swedenborg’s theology states that:
- The Father is the transcendent, unknowable soul of God, of which we can have no direct knowledge or experience at all.
- The Son is the human body or visible appearance of God—and, since the Incarnation, is the sole avenue by which the Father is known to human beings.
- The Holy Spirit is the divine truth and power flowing out from God, and in effect is the manifestation of God to human beings.
Swedenborg calls this a Trinity of “essential components” (Latin essentialia) of one God.
These three are not different modes or manifestations to us of some underlying divine Spirit.
In Swedenborg’s system, the Father is the underlying divine being, and is not perceivable by us at all. We finite humans are incapable of grasping or comprehending the infinite divine being of God. Only through the Son can we have any knowledge of God. And the Holy Spirit is the knowledge and power of God as it flows out from the Son, enlightening us and giving us spiritual life.
So instead of being modes or manifestations of God to human beings, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are more in nature of parts or constituents of the divine being. (The Latin word essentialia that Swedenborg uses to characterize them is somewhat difficult to capture and convey in English.) They are certainly not different appearances of God, as modalism and Oneness Pentecostals hold.
In Swedenborg’s theology, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are entirely distinct from one another, and cannot change into or appear as one another. Together, these three distinct but fully united “components” form a single God, in one divine Person, whom Swedenborg calls “the Divine Humanity” and “the Lord God Jesus Christ.” The three together are God just as our soul, body, and actions are us. There is no other underlying divine Spirit of which they could be “modes.”
Swedenborg does state that God relates to humans in various roles, such as King, Priest, Prophet, Savior, and Redeemer. However, according to Swedenborg, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as used in the Bible are not roles, and thus are not modes of God. Instead, all of God’s roles come from the Father, and are expressed by the Son through the Holy Spirit.
It helps to understand that Swedenborg did not interpret “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” as literal terms, like our human fathers, sons, and breaths (which is the meaning of “spirit”). Instead, he saw them more as metaphors drawn from human concepts and experiences, which the Bible uses to express deeper spiritual and divine realities about God.
For Swedenborg’s extensive presentation on the Trinity in one Person of God, see True Christianity, volume 1. (This link leads to its page on the publisher’s website, which offers free downloadable PDF and EPUB versions, in addition to print and Kindle editions for sale.)
(Note: This post is an edited version of an answer I wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
For further reading:
Thank you Sir for the article. My only question is how then in light of Swedenborg’s explanation of the concept of trinity are we supposed to understand Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15:24-28, especially vs 28,seeing as a literal understanding of that portion of Scripture seems to say there are TWO SEPARATE PERSONS involved.
Thanks for your question. First, here is 1 Corinthians 15:24-28:
First, notice that the text does not say “two separate persons.” It simply speaks of the Father and the Son, and their relationship to one another at various points along the way in the process of destroying all of God’s enemies and putting them under God’s feet.
Yes, it could be interpreted as two separate persons. But it can also be interpreted more metaphorically, or spiritually.
Here is a more spiritual way to look at it:
Consider the idea that in this passage, “God the Father” means God’s love, which is the core being of God, while Christ (“the Son”) is God’s word, wisdom, and truth, which is the means by which the love of God expresses its power.
If we read it this way, then the love that is at the core of God sent out God’s truth to fight against and overcome every authority and power opposed to God’s love. God’s love itself cannot do this alone. It must do it through God’s truth, which is like a sword in the hand of God. Through the sword of truth, which is Christ, and the Son, God conquered all of God’s enemies, and put them under the feet of the Father and the Son.
But when the Son–which is God’s truth–has accomplished that victory, it then subjects itself once again to the love of God, which is God the Father. So the truth of God always serves and expresses the love of God, which is the Father, and the core reality of God.
And yet, God’s love, truth, and power flowing out (which is the Holy Spirit) are simply different parts of one God, just as our human love, understanding, and actions are all part of the single person that is us.
Does that help you to understand this passage better, from the perspective of a Trinity in a single Person of God?
Yes it does,thank you Sir
If swedenborg had encounters with physical Jesus Christ face to face…he should KNOW what the true face of Jesus looks like….let’s hear his description of Christ.
Jesus Christ is not now physical in the usual sense. He did have an ordinary physical body during his lifetime on earth because in addition to being the Son of God, he was also the son of Mary. But he left behind in the grave the last of his merely physical self, and the last of what he had gotten from his human mother, so that when he rose from death he was fully God in human form. His body, too, was fully divine, made of divine substance, not physical matter. That is why he could pass through locked doors to greet his disciples, and vanish from the sight of the two he was walking with on the road to Emmaus.
Though Swedenborg did see Jesus in the spiritual world, and even said that he looked much as he had looked to his disciples when he was with them in the world, Swedenborg did not focus on Jesus’ physical appearance, but on his powerful and radiant divine presence. However, you may be interested in his account of one of his earliest encounters with Jesus, which he recorded at the time it happened in a personal journal that he kept during the years 1743–1744. The translation is a bit old-fashioned.
Cool, thanks for sharing. Good luck in your endeavors…God Bless.
Thanks. May God’s blessings be with you as well.