Swedenborg: The Theologian Who Wasn’t

By Jonathan S. Rose, series editor of the New Century Edition


Emanuel Swedenborg believed that conventional Christian theology sets an impossible challenge for believers. Though Christians are traditionally called upon by church doctrine to acknowledge the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three persons, their religion forbids them to refer to these persons as “three gods.” But such a mental “sleight of hand” is impossible, Swedenborg asserts. It would be like meditating on the idea of not thinking of the word rhinoceros. As he puts it in True Christianity 172: “At a conceptual level, the idea of a trinity of divine persons . . . is a trinity of gods.” We cannot wipe out the notion of three gods “just by orally confessing one God.” He goes on to say:

I submit it as a challenge to everyone—both laity and clergy, laureled professors and doctors as well as consecrated bishops and archbishops, even cardinals robed in scarlet and in fact the Roman pope himself—that the Christian world nowadays thinks of no other Trinity except a trinity of gods.

Instead of a trinity of persons of God, he insists, we should think of a trinity within the one person of God (The Lord 58). To Swedenborg, this failure of understanding is so critical that he calls it “the sole source of the materialist philosophy predominant today” (True Christianity 173), and he cites the unity of God as one of the two central principles of his own theology (Soul-Body Interaction 20).

In looking for a source to illustrate conventional Christian thinking on this topic, Swedenborg turns naturally to the Athanasian Creed. This summary of the Christian faith, originally written in Latin during the fourth or fifth century of the Christian era, contains an explicit statement about the three persons in the Trinity. In The Lord (full title: Teachings for the New Jerusalem on the Lord), first published in 1763, Swedenborg goes so far as to quote the Athanasian Creed in its entirety. But a close examination of his discussion reveals some curious things about Swedenborg as a theologian.

The first curiosity relates to the name of the creed itself. Among theological circles in Swedenborg’s day, the Athanasian Creed was commonly known by its first words, Quicunque Vult (“Whoever Wishes [To Be Saved]”) or by the term Symbolum Quicunque, which means “The Creed [Beginning with] Quicunque.” But though Swedenborg cites the creed several times in The Lord, he shows no awareness of these common titles. He even seems to shy away from calling it a creed (symbolum) at all in this work, preferring instead to call it “a faith” (fides).

Second, in his discussion in The Lord, Swedenborg shows no awareness that there existed a standard Latin version of the creed, a version widely accepted as authoritative throughout the Christian world of his day. It would be logical, since he is disputing the creed as a central document of the Christian religion, for him to cite the accepted form of it; but he does nothing of the kind. Instead, he apparently crafts his own Latin translation, drawing on an English version that appeared in the prayer book of the Anglican Church, The Book of Common Prayer. (As British Swedenborg translator John Elliott pointed out to me recently, Swedenborg himself hints at this source in Revelation Explained 1091:2.)

Further evidence concerning the source of his text comes from an examination of what specialists in the history of texts call “alternate readings.” These are variant phrasings found in one or more manuscripts of a text. Swedenborg supplies several of these alternate readings in parentheses right in his translation of the creed. Though the precise origin of his alternate readings is not clear, they echo the wording not of any Latin text but of German and Swedish translations of the creed.

It might be objected that Swedenborg was not unaware of the existence of the standard Latin text of the creed, but that he was instead refusing to use it for some reason. But if this was so, he took his refusal to quite an extreme. This would be like a brilliant scholar in American history refusing to look at the standard English text of the Constitution—in fact, acting as though it did not exist—and instead translating a Russian rendering of the Constitution back into English in order to illustrate his comments on American constitutional law.

To top it off, the translation Swedenborg develops in The Lord differs markedly from the standard Latin version, as a word-for-word comparison shows: it weaves phrases and paraphrases of the creed into striking new juxtapositions.

A development several years after this work’s publication would further suggest that Swedenborg came late to knowledge of the Latin creed. It appears that shortly before 1768 Swedenborg acquired a copy of the 1756 Leipzig edition of The Book of Concord, which contained the standard Latin translation of the Athanasian Creed. Thereafter he cited the approved Latin wording, apparently from his new acquisition.

But after setting out this evidence that Swedenborg may have been a theological amateur, we have to stop and ask: Is it really so shocking that he was not initially familiar with the authoritative form of one of the central theological creeds of Christianity? In fact, we contend that this evidence only confirms his own claims about the genuineness of his work as a theologian. In a letter of February 1767 to his friend Gabriel Beyer (1720–1779), Swedenborg wrote:

Before heaven was opened to me, I was forbidden to read books about dogmatic and systematic theology. The purpose behind this was to prevent unfounded opinions and novelties from working their way into my thinking—ideas that afterwards could have been removed only with difficulty. This is why, after heaven was opened to me, I first had to learn the Hebrew language, and also the correspondences of which the whole Bible is composed. In the process I read the whole of God’s Word many times. And since God’s Word is the source from which all theology must be taken, I was in this way put in a position to receive instruction from the Lord—who is the Word.

Swedenborg was, then, not so much a theologian as an anti-theologian. His very lack of acquaintance with the conventional forms of theological dogma testifies to his reliance on another, far more important source of his theological understanding—“the whole of God’s Word.”

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