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Both Oneness Pentecostals and Swedenborgians could, it seems to me, be described as "modalist" in contrast with "trinitarian." Obviously there are plenty of general differences between the two church families. But are there differences between their respective brands/flavors of modalism (if that's even what it is)?

  • Though I've explained it in long form in my answer below, I want to correct here in the comments the incorrect assumption embodied in the question that the Swedenborgian theology of God is somehow modalist. It is not. The question should ask whether Swedenborgian theology is modalist, and how it compares to modalist theology, not simply (and incorrectly) assume that it is modalist unless shown otherwise. Good quality questions require research and the dispelling of incorrect assumptions. – Lee Woofenden Nov 16 '15 at 19:11
  • @Lee We've been over this, and you and I disagree on the proper framing of this question. That's all the discussion I intend to have on this matter. – Mr. Bultitude Nov 16 '15 at 19:12
  • I'm aware of that. I think you're wrong in your framing. And since comments are for improving questions, this is the place to state exactly why you're wrong in the framing of the question. Incorrect assumptions make poor questions--even if the incorrect assumption has a long history. – Lee Woofenden Nov 16 '15 at 19:16
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tl;dr

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) agrees with Oneness Pentecostals and other modalists 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 to the question.

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 in the Wikipedia article linked in the question, 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 in the Wikipedia article linked in the question, 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:

  1. There is a divine Trinity, which is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  2. 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:

  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.

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 that the Bible uses to express deeper spiritual and divine realities about God.

For a fuller explanation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from a Swedenborgian perspective, written for a popular audience, see my article, Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

For Swedenborg's own 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.)

Please note: Although Swedenborg provides an extensive biblical basis in True Christianity for his doctrine of the Trinity, I have made no attempt to present it here because it is outside the scope of the question. I respectfully request that you vote this answer up or down based on how well it answers the question asked, rather than on whether or not you think Swedenborg's doctrine is true (which is off-topic on Christiainty.SE) or on how well I have supported that doctrine (which is not the purpose of this answer). Thank you.

  • Good explanation! – curiousdannii May 27 '15 at 4:19
  • Thanks! I have some questions, but I think I'll ask in chat when I get home from work. Be ready! :) – Mr. Bultitude May 27 '15 at 14:48
  • @Mr.Bultitude Armed and ready! Lock and load! – Lee Woofenden May 27 '15 at 16:00
  • I understand now. It is not a semantic distinction. – 3961 May 27 '15 at 21:58
  • Pls post Link for chat when you get the chance. I would be interested in reading/joining in. – James Shewey Sep 15 '15 at 21:23
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The revelation of the Trinity for the New Church, as given to Emanuel Swedenborg, is very similar to that of the Oneness Pentecostals. Both state that there is one God in one person in Jesus Christ. Swedenborg was given the doctrine of the Trinity as the Divine itself (the Father), the Divine Human (the Son), and the Divine proceeding (the Holy Spirit). This is all present bodily in Jesus Christ, for each human being is composed of the trine of soul, body, and spirit.

Oneness Pentecostalism states that God is one Divine spirit, which manifests itself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which are described as different titles depending on what aspect of God one is referring to. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneness_Pentecostalism - all quotes about Oneness Pentecostalism in this answer are from that page.)

In Oneness Pentecostalism the Father is defined as the "title of God in a parental relationship." In the New Church, the Father is the unseen or invisible God, which no human can see or approach directly. The primary quality of the Father is Divine love, or the will of God. The Father as a "parental relationship" is true in that God was the Father of the human born as Jesus Christ.

Oneness Pentecostals define the Holy Spirit as the "title of God in activity as Spirit." This is in close agreement with the doctrine of the New Church (aka Swedenborgianism).

In Oneness Pentecostalism the Son "refers to either the humanity and the deity of Jesus together, or to the humanity alone, but never to the deity alone." Here there is some disagreement within the Oneness Pentecostal church itself, and this is over the human nature of Jesus Christ - and over this issue there has been a recent split. In New Church theology it is very clear: the Son refers to the Divine Human. After the resurrection, the human form was united with the Father, and became a Divine Human, with one nature, the Divine. That there is disagreement within Oneness Pentecostals (or the UPCI) is shown from this rather recent development:

"In 2001, Bishop Teklemariam Gezahagne and the more than 1 million members of the Apostolic Church of Ethiopia (ACI) broke their 45-year alignment with the UPCI. The official position of the UPCI is that this division centered on Christology. Teklemarim taught that the flesh of Jesus was God and had no human connection to the seed of Adam, David, or his mother Mary. He taught one nature in Christ and it was divine. The UPCI has always taught two natures in Christ, human and divine. Teklemarim refused to reconsider his stance, even after high ranking envoys came from the UPCI to Ethiopia to discuss the issue. Thus, says the UPCI, divisions over Christology caused this schism."

The position of the New Church on this matter is that when Jesus was born, he had both a Divine and a human nature. Through the human nature he inherited from Mary, he could be tempted to sin and battle against all of hell. This human nature was successively overcome and expelled, until the human form was made completely Divine. Anything inherited from Mary was expelled. Thus, the New Church doctrine is closer in agreement with the Ethiopian Oneness Pentecostal Church. From a New Church perspective the UPCI is correct, but only as far as describing Jesus before he was glorified. The disagreement within the Oneness Pentecostal church is very similar to the Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. within the early Christian Church.

In the New Church, it is an absolute essential of faith to acknowledge the human form of Jesus Christ as now having one nature: the Divine. This is seen as the reason why the Eucharist was instituted in the early Christian Church.

As the Trinity is completely manifested within the body of Jesus Christ, the New Church or Swedenborgian doctrine is in no way similar to Modalism or Sabellianism. Whether one can make the Modalist label stick to the Oneness Pentecostals probably depends on which branch of Oneness Pentecostal one is referencing, as there is difference of opinion among their own theologians.

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    This answer provides some good information. However, it could benefit from an early clarification of what is stated in the last paragraph: that "the New Church or Swedenborgian doctrine is in no way similar to Modalism or Sabellianism." Otherwise the very first sentence, stating that the New Church and Oneness Pentecostal views of the Trinity are very similar, may be read as saying that Swedenborg's doctrine was modalist - as the UPCI position is commonly considered to be. – Lee Woofenden Sep 15 '15 at 18:33
  • Lee, it is not clear to me that UPCI can be classified as Modalist, so I am careful not to apply that label. Also you had already covered it. UPCI theologians vary in their own opinion among themselves on this matter (and some of them are probably closet Swedenborgians). The question was more on what similarity or difference there was between UPCI and the New Church. – Doug Webber Sep 16 '15 at 0:34

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