The theological basis for this article
This answer is based on the Bible interpretations and Christian theology put forth by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).
- This theology is not unitarian as that is usually defined, because Swedenborg stated that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all fully divine, and are God.
- This theology is not trinitarian as that is usually defined, because although Swedenborg stated that there is a Trinity in God, he denied that the Trinity consists of three persons, but stated that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a single person of God.
- It is also not modalist, as explained in this article.
Though Swedenborg’s theology has been identified with many earlier theologians and heresies rejected by Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christianity, a closer examination shows that his theology fundamentally disagrees with every such theology or heresy that has been attributed to him. To the best of my knowledge as a lifelong scholar and teacher of Swedenborg’s theology, his solution to the problem of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit presented in the Bible as being one God is unique in the history of Christian thought. It skips over all the creeds, and relies on the Bible’s own statements.
Though it is beyond the scope of the question and this answer to present a full explanation of Swedenborg’s doctrine of a Trinity in one person of God, it will be necessary to provide a brief sketch of it at the end in order to properly answer the question.
The definition of “Trinity”
Also in order to properly answer the question, it is necessary to be specific about the meaning of “the Trinity” as it is almost universally defined in Christianity today.
“The Trinity” does not mean merely an acceptance of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God. Rather, it specifies that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each distinct persons of God.
The most compact definition of the Trinity as almost universally accepted in Christianity today is:
One God in three persons.
Beyond that, the definition of “Trinity” as used in most Christian theologies gets less unanimous and more conflicted. However, it is commonly stated that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share a single substance or essence, which is expressed in three distinct persons or hypostases.
The question as asked is:
What is the Biblical basis for disbelief in the doctrine of the Trinity?
This response is based on the above widely accepted definition of the Trinity.
Note that though in this answer I will often refer to the doctrine of “a Trinity of persons,” if I simply refer to “the doctrine of the Trinity” or “trinitarian doctrine,” I am referring to the same doctrine, as defined above.
This response is not based on prooftexting
While I am perfectly capable of prooftexting with the best of ’em, I doubt that anyone who has spent any significant time reading pro-trinitarian and anti-trinitarian debates has not already read whole volumes of selected verses from the Bible purporting to demonstrate one position or the other. I suppose that if all the arguments were put together, nearly every verse in the entire Bible that says anything at all about God has been brought forward both in support of and against both positions.
And yet, each side of the debate still continues to believe that its position is correct while its opponent’s position is incorrect based on the Bible.
In short, prooftexting the Trinity has already been done, and has failed to produce any significant results.
Therefore though this response will necessarily make reference to the Bible from time to time, my main approach will be to take a broader view based on the Bible as a whole, and why, from the perspective of Swedenborg’s theology, trinitarian theology as adhered to in most of Christianity today does not have a sound Biblical basis.
The Trinity is not taught clearly, if at all, in the Bible
The primary Biblical basis for disbelief in the Trinity is disarmingly simple:
The specific teachings that distinguish the doctrine of a Trinity of persons in God from competing doctrines are not taught clearly, if at all, in the Bible.
- The word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible.
- The word “persons” is never used in reference to God in the Bible.
I am aware that this has been stated many times. Even defenders of the doctrine of the Trinity commonly admit these things.
However, I do not think that such defenders fully realize the force of these facts.
The Bible is the primary source and basis of Christian doctrine
All of the major Christian denominations consider the Bible to be the first and foremost authority in the church.
Even the Roman Catholic Church, though it also asserts the authority of the church itself on doctrinal matters, still holds the Bible as the primary authority on matters of Christian doctrine, and generally argues that its promulgated doctrines are either supported by, or are at least not in conflict with, the Bible.
The doctrine of a Trinity of persons in God is held by all the major branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) to be a fundamental doctrine of the church. The Athanasian Creed, in which that doctrine is most clearly articulated of any of the widely accepted Christian creeds, after spending most of its text explaining that doctrine, states:
This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.
In other words, the Athanasian Creed, which is accepted as doctrinally correct in most of Christianity, states that unless a person believes that there is a Trinity of persons in God, that person cannot be saved.
Now, here is the problem with that:
As any honest defender of trinitarian doctrine will admit, the doctrine of a trinity of persons in God is not clearly and unmistakably taught in the Bible. And yet, it has been adopted as fundamental to Christianity and to salvation by the vast bulk of Christian churches, clergy, and theologians.
How can a doctrine that is not clearly articulated in the Bible be essential to salvation?
How can a doctrine that took several centuries of debate and dissension among human theologians to establish as the primary doctrine of Christianity (see my article, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) be considered fundamental to Christian belief, and necessary for salvation?
Such a position impugns both the Bible and its divine Author as being incapable of providing the clear, basic teachings necessary for salvation.
It holds that God’s Word alone is not sufficient to provide faithful Christians with what they need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. By implication it claims, instead, that the Bible must be “helped” by human theologians in order to get its teachings into a form that is effective in saving the faithful.
I fully understand that there are some Christian doctrines that require human interpretation of the Bible in order to be seen and understood. However:
Any doctrine that is essential to Christianity and essential to salvation must be clearly present in the plain words and teachings of the Bible, without the need for interpretation by human theologians.
Quite simply, the doctrine of a Trinity of persons in God fails that test.
Not only is it not clearly taught in the Bible, but it was not even clearly formulated until several hundred years after the last books of the Bible were written.
At minimum, then, the doctrine of a Trinity of persons in God must be rejected as being fundamental and necessary Christian doctrine.
Since that doctrine is not taught clearly, if at all, in the Bible, any claim that Christians must believe in it, or that it is essential to Christian belief, cannot be sustained based on the general principle that the Bible is the primary source of Christian belief, and provides all of the teachings necessary for salvation.
The Trinity is at best a secondary, non-essential doctrine
Based on all of this, the most that can be claimed for the doctrine of the Trinity is that it could be accepted as a secondary, non-essential doctrine of the church.
However, I am not aware of any Christian branch, church, or denomination that considers the Trinity to be a secondary doctrine. All of the trinitarian churches that I am aware of consider it to be fundamental, primary Christian doctrine. If they were asked to relegate it to secondary status, they would vigorously defend it as a fundamental doctrine of Christianity, if not the fundamental doctrine of Christianity.
Therefore the doctrine of a Trinity of persons in God as it is promulgated and held to by all of the major groups of Christians that believe in it cannot be supported in the doctrinal position that they give it because it fails the test of being clearly taught in the Bible.
It is not necessary to Biblically disprove the Trinity
Based on the above argument, it is not necessary to disprove the doctrine of the Trinity of persons using Biblical citations, as has often been attempted—and just as often refuted.
All that’s necessary is to show that it is not clearly and unequivocally taught in the Bible as necessary for salvation. And I have yet to see any cogent, Bible-based argument that the Bible itself teaches that it is necessary to believe in a Trinity of persons in God in order to be Christian and to be saved.
So the crux of this response is that the burden of proof rests on trinitarians to show that this is a clear, unequivocal teaching of the Bible, without a belief in which a person is not Christian and cannot be saved.
I do not believe it is possible to show such a thing based on the Bible.
Just a few Bible texts to illustrate the above response
I stated above that I would avoid prooftexting. That is still my intention. I do not claim that the following quotes prove the position of Swedenborg’s theology. (I also in no way believe that it is necessary for a Christian to accept Swedenborg’s theology in general, or his formulation of the Trinity in particular, in order to be saved.)
However, if I do not provide at least some quotes from the Bible, it may seem that this response doesn’t really answer the question. So here are a few to whet your whistle.
I stated earlier that:
- The word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible.
It is not fundamental to this argument to reject the idea of three-ness in God. As I said at the beginning, Swedenborg accepted the idea that there is a Trinity in God—though not as it is usually defined.
However, it is quite striking that whenever a number is specifically attributed to God in the Bible, that number is always one. Just two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord (Deuteronomy 6:4)
I and my Father are one. (John 10:30)
There are no corresponding verses that state that God is three.
Yes, I am aware of the statement in 1 John 5:7:
For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
However, the Comma Johanneum, spanning 1 John 5:7-8, is now widely accepted by Bible scholars as a later, most likely post-Nicene, addition to the Greek text of the Bible from Latin sources. In other words, it was most likely added to the Bible after the doctrine of the Trinity had been formulated by Christian theologians.
So it now seems quite clear that the one and only verse in the entire Bible that even approaches a trinitarian formula is a later addition, and not part of the original text of the Bible. (And even if it is accepted as genuine, it still doesn’t say that there are three persons in God.)
The fact of the total absence from the Bible of any statement clearly attaching the numeral “three” to God invalidates the Trinity as fundamental Christian doctrine.
I also said earlier that:
- The word “persons” is never used in reference to God in the Bible.
This is even more telling as to the lack of a Biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity.
Proponents of the Trinity can argue that there are “threes” associated with God, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But they cannot point to a single verse in which those three are called “persons,” individually or collectively.
The reality is that the language used in Christian formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity is not based on the Bible. Rather, the wording commonly used is based primarily on ancient (non-Christian) Greek philosophers, sometimes as formulated in Latin rather than in Greek.
The very fact that this doctrine could not be properly formulated without borrowing vocabulary from non-Biblical sources should give pause to those who believe that it is a fundamental Christian and Biblical teaching.
In particular, words such as “persons,” “essences,” “hypostases,” and so on, as they are used in trinitarian formulations, are derived from Greek and Roman philosophy, not from the Bible.
Does this mean they are wrong?
But it means that the formulation of the doctrine had to rely on non-Biblical sources in order to provide a statement of it that was satisfactory to Christian theologians and the major branches of Christianity.
The Bible never calls the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit “persons.”
And yet, stating that they are “persons” is fundamental to the doctrine of the Trinity.
This should establish that the primary basis of the doctrine of the Trinity is human philosophy and reason, not the Bible.
As I said previously, if the Trinity were claimed only as a secondary doctrine, that would not be a major problem. But since it is claimed as an essential doctrine of the church, a belief in which is necessary for salvation, it is invalid because it is based on human reason and interpretation, not on the plain language of the Bible.
There is a solid, Bible-based alternative to Trinitarian doctrine
The Christian theologians who developed and established the doctrine of the Trinity were facing a tough challenge. As recounted in scholarly histories of the doctrine such as this one, the doctrine of the Trinity as now accepted in most of Christianity was formulated primarily in response to Arianism, which in effect denied the full divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit by saying that they were created rather than eternal beings.
The challenge was to develop some doctrine that accepted Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as fully divine without rejecting the nature and role of each. The result, over time, was the doctrine of the Trinity.
Perhaps the most cogent argument in favor of this doctrine is not that it is clearly taught in the Bible (because it isn’t), but rather that it is (as is commonly believed) the only doctrine that fully accepts the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as presented in the Bible, maintaining that all three of them are God.
In order to do that, trinitarian doctrine defined each of them as “persons,” and stated that all were equally eternal, infinite, and divine.
It is often claimed by trinitarians that this is the only possible doctrine that could be derived from the many statements about God throughout the Old and New Testaments.
However, I believe that Swedenborg presented a superior doctrine, more soundly based on the Bible’s entire presentation about God, in the form of a doctrine of a Trinity in a single person of God.
If there is a doctrine that preserves the full divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that harmonizes with all of the statements about them in the Bible while maintaining that they are fully one, and not unbiblically “three persons,” then the claim that the doctrine of the Trinity is the only fully Bible-based doctrine about God falls to the ground.
That doctrine also becomes unnecessary and not to be believed because it introduces non-Biblical concepts that are not needed to formulate a doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is fully based on the Bible’s own statements about them and about God in general.
Offering a full presentation of that doctrine would be far beyond the scope of this response, and would swell it to massive size. For those interested, please see my readable, plain English presentation of it in the article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?” And for Swedenborg’s own far more extensive and theological presentation of that doctrine, see his work True Christianity.
However, to complete this argument, here is a thumbnail sketch, with some reference to its Biblical basis.
Swedenborg’s doctrine of a Trinity in one person
In Genesis 1:26 we read:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
And God proceeded to do just that in Genesis 1:27.
Since we humans are created in God’s image, our nature should, in a finite way, reflect God’s infinite nature.
This means that if there is a Trinity in God, and humans are created in the image of God, then there must be a trinity in us as well.
According to Swedenborg, this is precisely the case. There are three essential parts of a human being without which we would not be human:
(“Actions” includes what we say or write as well.)
These are all common Biblical concepts.
This forms the basis for a simple, clear understanding of the Trinity in one divine Person of God:
- The Father is the divine soul.
- The Son is the divine body, or human manifestation.
- The Holy Spirit is all of God’s words and actions flowing out from God.
We would never say that there are three “persons” in a human being because that human being has three essential parts: soul, body, and actions.
Similarly, if God has a divine soul, which is the Father, a divine body, which is the Son, and a divine proceeding or flowing outward, which is the Holy Spirit, we would never say that there are three “persons” of God. Rather, we would say that there is one God with three essential components.
Another way of formulating the Trinity in God is:
- The Father is the divine love, which is the underlying substance or soul of God. (1 John 4:8 and 4:16 state that “God is love.”)
- The Son is the divine wisdom, which is the expression or human presence of God. (John 1:14 states that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”)
- The Holy Spirit is the divine proceeding, which is God’s truth and power flowing out into the universe, and to humans and angels. (John 14:26 says, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything.”)
If we think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in this way, many otherwise confusing statements in the Bible make perfect sense.
For example, the highly philosophical opening statement in the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18) becomes a luminous poetic expression of God expressing himself through his eternal Word, which was made flesh (human) as Jesus Christ.
It also makes perfect sense that Jesus said “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), since Jesus is the human presence and expression of the Father, which is his inner divine soul.
And of course, when Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), that also makes perfect sense.
Swedenborg’s doctrine offers a better, more Biblical alternative
Much of the language applied to God in the Bible is poetic and symbolic rather than literal and technical. If we consider God’s problem in attempting to convey lofty spiritual and divine ideas to us dense, materialistic human beings, we can perhaps understand why the Bible uses metaphors such as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in describing God.
However, if we interpret these metaphors as Swedenborg does, as referring to distinct essential components of one God in a single divine Being, or Person—components that are commonly reflected and described throughout the text of the Bible itself—then everything that the Bible says about God, and about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, falls beautifully into place.
This, of course, barely scratches the surface. It may raise more questions than it answers. But I hope it is enough to show that there is a coherent, Bible-based alternative to the widely accepted brain-bending and logic-defying doctrine of a Trinity of persons in God.
And if there is another doctrine that affirms the full divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while seeing them as fully and unequivocally one, just as the Bible says God is, then that doctrine must be seen as more in accord with the Bible’s statements about God than the trinitarian doctrine that took hold in Christianity only in response to the Arian Controversy that erupted in the fourth century of the Christian church.
(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: