Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Swedenborg Was Not a Modalist (Sabellian)

I recently received a note from a Swedenborgian minister about this post. He posted these two comments (onetwo) clarifying the proper understanding. 

From the second comment:
Swedenborg was not, in fact, a modalist, despite that doctrine being sometimes attributed to him by traditional Christians. He explicitly rejected Sabellianism as a heresy, among many other heresies, in True Christianity #378. 
Though Swedenborg rejected the Nicene/Athanasian Trinity of Persons, considering it unbiblical and false, his version of the Trinity did not, as the modalist Trinity does, consider Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be various "modes" of a single God, or different ways that a single God appears to humans. Rather, Swedenborg saw Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "essential components" (Latin: essentialia) of a single Person of God, equivalent to the soul, body, and actions of human beings--whom, according to Genesis 1:26-27, God created "in the image and likeness of God." 
For more on the difference between Swedenborg's Trinity and the modalistic (Sabellian) view, please see my article, "What is the difference between the Swedenborgian and Oneness Pentecostal doctrines of God?"
From the linked article at his site:
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:  
1. The Father is the transcendent, unknowable soul of God, of which we can have no direct knowledge or experience at all. 
2. 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. 
3. 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.
When I first read this, I wondered whether instead of understanding God as the modalists do -- three different forms or modes of one God -- Swedenborg's position was the Trinity is three different functions of one God. Three different functions not forms.

I'm not sure if that's right. Three different components is more like a Voltron like dynamic. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not, individually, fully God, but rather together are fully God. By the way, Swedenborg viewed God as one Person and Jesus Christ is that Person (that is JC IS the Father, Son AND Holy Spirit).


Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for posting this correction. I have found that the idea that Swedenborg was a modalist is one of the more persistent errors about Swedenborg's theology among traditional Christians. I appreciate your willingness to correct that common error.

In response to your brief commentary:

It is somewhat difficult to translate the sense of Swedenborg's Latin essentialia in this context into English. Traditional translations of Swedenborg's works generally just use the cognate "essentials" and leave it at that. The more recent New Century Edition of Swedenborg's theological works, currently in publication by the Swedenborg Foundation, takes a stab at actually translating it by using "essential components." But that still doesn't quite capture what Swedenborg seems to be saying. I don't think Swedenborg is actually talking about "parts" of God as that would normally be understood, though in a more abstract way that can be seen as what he's talking about.

The best way to gain an understanding of the meaning of Swedenborg's essentialia in this context is to think in terms of his analogy of the Father as the soul, the Son as the body, and the Holy Spirit as the actions of a human being.

Soul, body, and actions are not exactly "parts" or "components" of a human being, except in a more abstract, meta sense. Each exists in its own distinct realm of reality or existence. They are not of like nature the way the head, torso, and limbs of a body are of like nature, so that these can be called "parts of the body" in the usual sense. However, the soul, body, and actions are "essentials" of a person in that a person cannot exist as a person without all three existing together, and together constituting the person.

This is how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the three essentialia of the one Person of God in Swedenborg's theology.

To take up the "function and form" language, I would not say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different "functions" of God. Nor, of course, are they different "forms" of God (the modalist view). Neither formulation quite captures it.

A better way to use that language in relation to Swedenborg's trinity would be:

The Father is the substance of God.

The Son is the form of God.

The Holy Spirit is the function or action of God.

Once again, these are not really "parts" or "components" of God in the usual sense. Perhaps saying that they are different "elements" of God would come closer, if "elements" is thought of somewhat abstractly.

About your final statement, Swedenborg would not normally say that Jesus Christ is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but rather that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in the one God, who is one and the same as the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. (During his lifetime on earth Jesus Christ had a finite human part from his human mother Mary that, by the time of his resurrection, had been entirely left behind and replaced with an infinite Divine Humanity.)

I hope this helps to clarify some of your remaining questions about Swedenborg's Trinity.

Thanks again for posting this material.

Jonathan Rowe said...

My pleasure and many thanks!