Servetus, Swedenborg, and the Nature of Salvation
Andrew M. T. Dibb
Although separated by two hundred years, Michael Servetus and Emanuel Swedenborg had remarkably similar views on the nature of God. They both rejected the standard Christian concepts of the Trinity.1 They agreed that the Nicene Council of 325 was the thin end of a wedge that would strike to the very heart of Christianity. Athanasius drove that wedge deeper, stressing the individuality of the three Persons of the Trinity, plainly describing three Gods who were nevertheless one God. Nestorius and Leo drove the wedge in further at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon respectively, asserting the complete separation of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. These teachings could not be explained, only believed. Throughout the Middle Ages reason was subjected to faith and those few who dared to challenge them were persecuted, as was Servetus. Both Michael Servetus and Emanuel Swedenborg denounced this Trinity as nothing more than effective tritheism.2 Swedenborg blamed it for the absolute spiritual destruction of the Church.3
Rejecting an age old doctrine is only valuable, however, if one presents a workable alternative. Writing two hundred years apart, Servetus and Swedenborg presented remarkably similar concepts of God. Servetus, first in his work The Errors of the Trinity and later in the Christianismi Restitutio posits the proposition that the Christian can only understand God in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ, he says, is man, He is Son of God and therefore He is God Himself.4 There is no Trinity in the Christian sense, but in Christ the invisible God, the creator of the universe presents Himself to the human mind, and through Christ, as the operative force of regeneration God acts as the Holy Spirit. Drawing from Tertullian's Against Praxeas, Servetus shows that there are not three "Persons," but one person whose invisible acts into the visible, and the Holy Spirit is the activity of this visible God. God therefore is one, but he can only be seen, only experienced, and only active in human life in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Swedenborg's concept of the Trinity is remarkably similar. He describes the "Father" as the soul of Jesus Christ. Christ, given life by this soul, only came into existence at conception. Swedenborg describes how the soul clothed itself with elements from Mary during the period of gestation, clothing itself not only with a physical body, but also with the limitations of a merely human mind. Through his thirty-three years Jesus faced up to these human limitations, one by one, cleansing his mind of their influence and breaking the powers of the hells that, invisible to humans, feed their inclinations toward evil. Drawing power from his divine soul, Christ was victorious in every combat, and, in each victory the presence of the divine extended further and further into his mind. The passion of the cross was the final battle; it was a full rejection of merely limiting things cohering to the human taken on from Mary. Like a seed dying as it sprouts, death on the cross brought life. The resurrected Jesus was completely united to the divine. The Father, or soul, found full and complete expression in the Son or the body. In Jesus Christ, the invisible was now visible, and God above the heavens could now be present not only in the heavens, but in the lives of people in this world. The activity of this presence is the Holy Spirit, or the Divine proceeding. Swedenborg called this process "glorification," or the process whereby Jesus' human was made Divine. Servetus' formula, therefore, interacts well with Swedenborg's theology. Christ, as a man, could be tempted like any person, yet His divine soul made Him the Son of God. At glorification, when the human was made fully divine, He became one with God, and so is God.
The central similarity between Servetus and Swedenborg, then, apart from simply the rejection of the Nicene and Chaldedonian formulas, is their agreement with Paul that "in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily."5 Equally both men teach that the "Lord is the God of heaven and earth and His Human is Divine."6
The implications of this radical revision of Christian doctrine are far reaching. Christian theology, from the Council of Nicaea onwards developed in response to the doctrine of the Trinity, and this affected every detail of the Church's teachings. The Protestant Reformation, rejecting many of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, maintained the Nicene Creed and the reformers developed their soteriology accordingly.7 By the age of Enlightenment, when Swedenborg was writing, much of the naturalism then prevalent was a rejection of the corpus of Christian teaching. The fundamental teaching of the Trinity and the resulting understanding of the nature of God, then, has shaped Western thought, be it Roman Catholic, Protestant or naturalism.
Both Servetus and Swedenborg realized that a redefinition of God would result in a reworking of all theology, which, since it begins in different premises, would result in substantially different ideas on the nature of the human being and the process of salvation. Swedenborg presents an interesting principle:
How important it is to have a right idea of God can be established from this, that the idea of God constitutes the inmost of thought with all who have a religion, for all things of religion and all things of worship have respect to God.8
In a similar vein he writes:
. . . a right idea of God in the church is like the sanctuary and altar in a temple, or like the crown upon the head and the scepter in the hand of a king on his throne; for on a right idea of God the whole body of theology hangs, like a chain on its first link. . .9
The purpose of this paper is to try to construct and harmonize a systematic theology between Servetus and Swedenborg. By beginning with the general concept of the human condition relating to original sin, one lays the essential groundwork of the human relationship with God. Salvation is reconnection with God, which can only happen through a process of first acquiring faith, and subsequently of applying faith in good works and charity. Servetus and Swedenborg part ways over the practical aspects of baptism, especially paedo-baptism, but there may be more common ground than first appears when one examines the intention and motivation that led Servetus to reject contemporary infant baptism.
The Human Condition top
In order to begin a discussion of Servetus' and Swedenborg's concepts of salvation, it is necessary to explore the similarities and differences in their theologies about the human condition. Orthodox Christianity holds that the sin of Adam infected all subsequent generations with original sin, staining the soul in such a way that people, even in infancy, are, by definition, defiled sinners. Luther wrote:
For original sin is born in us by nature, and may be checked, but not entirely uprooted, except through the death of the body; which for this reason is profitable and a thing to be desired.10
Luther taught that the result of original sin is a conflict within a person between the flesh and the spirit. The flesh would win the battle if it were not for Divine intervention in the form of baptism which washes away the guilt of the sin. Luther taught that even if people do not perform any actual sins, original sin itself blocks them from entering the kingdom of heaven.11 He describes it as being "easily inflamed and moved to evil love, lust and works, as tinder easily takes fire."12 Although baptism breaks the effect of original sin it "remains as a work; for although it is forgiven, nevertheless it lives and works and raves and assails us until the body dies, and only then is it destroyed."13
Calvin echoes a similar sentiment in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, where he notes that although people have the seed of religion implanted in them, they reject it, with the result that they sink into blindness, vanity, obstinacy and stupidity.14 Calvin writes that Adam's sin infected all his descendants, wrecking the image of God in which they were created.
Therefore, after the heavenly image was obliterated in him, he was not the only one to suffer this punishment—that, in place of wisdom, virtue, holiness, truth, and justice, with which adornments he had been clad, there came forth the most filthy plagues, blindness, impotence, impurity, vanity, and injustice—but he also estranged and immersed his offspring in the same miseries.15
According to Calvin, Adam's sin is passed from generation to generation, from the soul of the father to the son.16 When Adam lost the essential quality of his humanity, his freedom to serve God, he lost it for all future generations. All people since Adam are, therefore, spiritually deranged and held in spiritual bondage.
It's hard to know which came first, the idea of a divided Trinity, or that of original sin. If people are spiritually deranged and unable to help themselves in spiritual matters, then the only solution is the doctrine of the vicarious atonement in which the second Person of the Trinity took human sins upon Himself, died on the cross, and saves those who believe in Him. But if one rejects the Nicaean Trinity, as Servetus and Swedenborg did, then they needed to interpret the consequences of Adam's fall differently.
Servetus and Swedenborg both dismiss the traditional concept of original sin, not because they deny the sinful nature of the human being, but because they approach it from a different perspective. Each held the idea of corporate guilt repugnant. People are guilty for their own sins, not for something that happened in the mists of time, over which they have no control. In the final analysis people are saved or not saved on account of their own lives. While Luther and Calvin use the fall of Adam and God's angry response to explain the human condition and the parameters of salvation, Servetus approaches the subject very differently. In Christianismi Restitutio Servetus treats of Adam's fall as the source of corruption in the human being, and the ruination of the world,17 but his theology does not stress the consequences to the same degree as his contemporary reformers.18
Servetus does not lay the origin of sin on Adam in the traditional way, but turns instead to Isaiah and the revolt of Lucifer,19 who tried to lift himself above God and so was cast down into hell. Lucifer, or Satan, introduced people to evil, so that the source of evil is prior to humanity and infected Adam through his willingness to cooperate with Satan. Satan seduced Adam away from God and into allegiance with himself.20 Thus the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Adam and Eve was the source of the sin, not Adam himself. Yet Adam gave in to the seduction, and by his sin brought sin into human consciousness. All sin and evil begins from this seduction of Adam by the Serpent—who is Lucifer, the Devil or Satan.21 Thus Servetus writes,
Adam is the efficient cause of our destruction. When we commit sin the serpent has power, he causes the corruption of our body and mind, and renders our minds confused. . . . Then we begin to die, and repentance and faith are needed so that we can recover from our lapse.22
Swedenborg takes a different approach to the fall of man which he summarizes in the little work, Coronis. He disclaims Adam as the first individual human being, instead Adam is a symbol of the first people, who began in a state of innocence and integrity and gradually turned away into evil.23
But, my friend, the things related of Adam, of the garden of God, and of the two trees therein, appear under quite a different aspect when spiritually comprehended, that is, unfolded by the spiritual sense; then it is clearly seen that, by "Adam," as a type, is meant the most ancient church;24 and the successive states of that church are described by the vicissitudes of his life. For a church in the beginning is like a man created anew, who has a natural and a spiritual mind, and by degrees from spiritual becomes natural, and at length sensual, who believes nothing but what the senses of the body dictate. And such a man appears in heaven like a person sitting on a beast which turns its head back, and with its teeth bites, tears, and mangles the man sitting upon it. But the truly spiritual man appears in heaven also like a person sitting on a beast, but on a gentle one, which he governs with a gentle rein and also with a nod.25
Swedenborg teaches that the "serpent" was not a devil or Satan per se, but rather people's sensory perception.26 At first the earliest people, referred to as "Adam" were willing to follow the Lord. Their innocence gave them perceptive insights into the very essence of goodness, so that their lives were filled with love. In this pure state evil did not exist. However, in course of time they began to put more credence in the evidence of their physical senses and a higher priority on their own desires. Gradually they were deluded by their senses and so turned their backs to God. The result was a life of selfishness and the false thinking supporting it and consequently separation from God. The fall of Adam, of humanity, therefore was not a single act of disobedience, but a complete rejection of everything of God, and this rejection is the source of all evil.
The essential similarity in the teachings of Servetus and Swedenborg lies in the free choice of the human being (Adam being either an individual or representative of a group of people). Servetus argues that the impetus to sin came from above, by means of the serpent, while Swedenborg describes it as coming from within, from people freely turning from God to sensual things, represented by the serpent. The effect is quite the same. Swedenborg's doctrinal arguments, applied to Servetus' reasoning, mean the same thing: people chose to turn from God to the Serpent, to the delights and allure of the senses, with the dire result that evil entered the world.
For each it is important to note that Adam is the cause of human destruction, but people are not destroyed because of Adam, as is taught in the traditional churches. Adam's sin made it possible for all people to sin, but because Adam cooperated with the Serpent, sin is the result of human free choice, and can therefore only be removed by free choice. Cooperation can only take place when people know the difference between good and evil, thus evil "begins in us when be start to know good and evil, which urges us forward to learn from the serpent."27
If Servetus and Swedenborg hold similar views regarding original sin, they are also agree about the results. Both Catholics and Protestants teach that people are condemned because of Adam's sin, but Servetus and Swedenborg deny that Adam's sin automatically condemns all human beings to spiritual death. Servetus sees original sin as a means for evil to enter the world, but not automatic destruction. Willis sums the concept up like this,
Adam's transgression brought no real guiltiness on mankind, for such can never be incurred through another's but only through each man's own deed, a previous knowledge of what is good and evil being the indispensable condition to responsibility.28
While Servetus and Swedenborg reject the traditional concept original sin, they do not go as far as Pelagius who taught that no one was injured through Adam's sin but Adam himself.29 If, as according to Servetus, people have no real original sin in the orthodox sense, they do have a hereditary nature, resulting from Satan's presence since the fall. The Serpent inhabits all people, spreading a shadow across the mind and arousing evil lusts in the body. His presence is the source of all sins, and only repentance can break his hold.30
To understand the importance of the hereditary nature leading to sin, it is important to note that both Servetus and Swedenborg make an important distinction between evil and sin. Evil can be considered a state of being, a state of separation from God. Sin is an action made knowingly and from choice. Evil and sin are cause and effect. Thus Adam's sin implanted evil in humanity, but the individual, responding to the impetus of the evil, sins. In Catholic and Protestant doctrine the mere presence of evil condemns people. Swedenborg quotes the Formula of Concord as saying: "original sin is an accident; and that by reason of it, man is, as it were, spiritually dead before God."31 The very presence of evil, therefore, condemns people to spiritual death. Sin simply follows as a consequence.
But both Servetus and Swedenborg make a distinction between evil and death. Both hold that Adam's sin does indeed pollute the human soul. This pollution is passed hereditarily from parent to child. In Servetus' system, this hereditary evil brings "no actual guilt, for it is evil and disease rather than sin."32 Sin is a different matter, for it is the actions of an evil person, who deliberately and in the face of previous knowledge chooses to act in harmony with the promptings of evil. Certainly neither evil nor sin can be said to be from God, for they arise from twisted human internals and result in evil actions. Only goodness comes from God, and is sustained by Him.33
Again, there is a similar recurring theme in Swedenborg's writings.
It is well known that a person derives evil from both parents and that this evil is called hereditary evil. He is therefore born with that evil, but it does not show itself until he grows up and acts from his understanding and his will based on his understanding. In the meantime it lies hidden, especially during early childhood. Now because in the Lord's mercy no one can come to be blamed for his hereditary evil, only for the evil of his own doing, and hereditary evil cannot become evil of his own doing until he acts from his own understanding and his own will. . .34
Hereditary evil is responsible for an inclination towards sin, "it is not real evil that one actually commits, but a tendency to it."35 There is no guilt, therefore, in hereditary evil, only in the choices people make to confirm their tendencies in their lives. Unless they are repented of, these choices remain after death and they do condemn. In addition, without repentance, actual evils of life compound the hereditary evils passed from generation to generation, so that without repentance, hereditary evil "is reinforced by a succession of parents, becoming more prone to evils, and eventually to every kind of evil."36 The source of damning sin in Swedenborg's theology, therefore, is the individual human being. One cannot blame Adam, but only oneself, and it is important to bear in mind that in terms of the next generation, each parent stands in the place of Adam. Thus sin did not enter the world once, but does so continuously through human choices and actions.
Servetus and Swedenborg conceived of very similar ideas relating to the fallen nature of the human race. There are elements of similarity with the commonly held teachings of original sin, but they conceived of the mechanics and outcomes of "Adam's sin" in a very different way from orthodox theologians. Behind every idea of the human condition is the concept of God. One of the key purposes of religion is to show God's reaction to human evil and sin, whether He overlooks it or condemns people on account of it. In addition to this is the question of how God saves people from the consequences of their fallen nature. Traditional Christianity turned to the tri-personal God of Nicaea for answers. Thus the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity took on a human nature, suffered for human sins and died on people's behalf. His vicarious atonement emphasizes the distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and while Roman Catholics and the various Protestant sects treat of the process differently, they all come back to the division of God into Three Persons. But since Servetus and Swedenborg reject the Nicaean Trinity, their answers to the human condition are necessarily different.
The Rejection of Traditional Concepts of Salvation top
The idea of atonement is closely related to the idea of a tripersonal God, and is an essential element in Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine. Servetus, in rejecting the Trinity, also rejects atonement. He says little on the subject, but his views do give us an insight into his concept of God. According to Willis,
We do not remember to have met with the word atonement in Servetus' writings. He had evidently passed beyond the idea of a vengeful Hebrew God and the shedding of blood as a propitiatory means believed in by the Christians of his day and still so commonly accepted in our own.37
It could be argued that Servetus and Swedenborg lay the responsibility for condemnation on the shoulders of the individual, and therefore it is up to the individual to take the necessary steps to cooperate with God in order for both evil and sin to be removed. This stands in stark contrast with both Catholic and Protestant theology, which holds that people are essentially helpless in spiritual matters. Swedenborg quotes the Roman Catholic Church as saying,
original sin is taken away only by the merit of Christ; and that the merit of Christ is applied by the sacrament of Baptism; and that thus the whole guilt of original sin is taken away by Baptism; that nevertheless lust remains in the baptized as an incentive to sins, but not sin itself; that thus they put on Christ, become new creatures, and obtain a full and complete remission of sins.38
By suffering and dying Christ has an inexhaustible fund of "merit" which He can give to those who are baptized. The Father, seeing the Son's merit inscribed on people, turns His anger aside and forgives them. Those who lapse after baptism have theirs sins remitted through a process of repentance, consisting of contrition, confession, absolution and penance. Thus it is expected that Roman Catholics will make good use of the merit of Christ granted them at baptism. Since both Servetus and Swedenborg reject the Trinity of Persons, they accordingly reject the putative relationship between Father and Son intrinsic in the doctrine of merit. In addition, the idea of salvation by this method was so obviously open to abuse, both by individuals and the Church itself, that the Catholic soteriology was untenable to them.
They were equally discontent with Protestant alternatives. Martin Luther taught salvation by faith alone which is also based on a Trinity of three Persons. Their responses to Luther are very similar.
Almost in the very words of Swedenborg, Servetus condemns the reformers for their fundamental . . . doctrine of salvation by faith alone. Faith, he admits, does indeed save a man, but not faith alone, especially not the faith of the Lutherans, or of any church that has divided the Godhead into three Persons, and Christ into two natures.39
Servetus wrote that "to believe is supposed to be sufficient for salvation; but what follows is to believe aught which cannot be understood,"40 and again, "no one can have faith in that of which he has no knowledge whatsoever."41 Since the idea of the Trinity has so completely obscured the true nature of God, he held that any profession of faith was not real.
Swedenborg says much the same thing.
. . . [A]t the present day the term faith is taken to mean the mere thought that the thing is so because the church so teaches, and because it is not evident to the understanding.42 For we are told to believe, and not to doubt, and if we say that we do not comprehend, we are told that this is just the reason for believing. So that the faith of the present day is a faith in the unknown, and may be called blind faith, and as it is something that someone has said, in somebody else, it is a faith of hearsay.43
An alternative to salvation through vicarious atonement is the double predestination offered by Calvin. Calvin believed that God alone was the author of salvation, regardless of the state of the individual. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion he writes that "no one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply to deny predestination, by which God adopts some to hope of life and sentences others to eternal death."44 Those elected to heaven are given every advantage by God to prepare them, but those destined to hell are effectively blocked.
This teaching was rejected outright by Servetus and Swedenborg. Since both embraced the idea of total free will in spiritual and natural matters, it was impossible for God to predestine anyone to either heaven or hell.45 Servetus condemns predestination as the teaching of Simon Magis, a "horrible travesty of Divine justice."46 While Calvin thought that predestination was a result of God's omnipotence and omnipotence, Servetus saw it from the opposite point of view: it limits God to ideas of time and space. And, he wrote,
God does not at all subject himself to time, time itself having been created. The argument of Numenius is strong: whatever follows is the past, and the future is variously grasped, it has something taken away or mixed in. In God it is otherwise, in that he is the first being, and the highest act, nothing is taken away. Therefore in his eyes the variation of time is nothing.47
He argued that in order for predestination to work, God would have to plan who would be saved and who condemned before their conception. Thus He would have to think of people in temporal terms, and since God is not limited to time and space, to think of Him in this way is limiting. This would limit Christ, and make a mockery of His life and death in this world.48
The idea of limiting Christ by preordained, time-based considerations runs directly counter to Servetus' insistence that not only does salvation come from Christ, but that Christ exercised freedom of will in the process. His freedom is the source of human freedom.49 Rather, God thinks in terms of the present: "predestination in God is not distinguishable from that which is."50
Swedenborg's rejection of predestination comes to a similar conclusion but from a different point of view. According to Swedenborg, since God is a God of love, who created in order to make people happy, predestination
. . . is a cruel heresy. . . . For it is cruel to believe that the Lord, who is Love itself and Mercy itself, suffers so great a multitude of men to be born for hell, or so many myriads of myriads to be born condemned and doomed, that is, to be born devils and satans; and that He does not from His Divine Wisdom provide that those who live well and acknowledge God should not be cast into everlasting fire and torment.51
However, Swedenborg is equally determined that God cannot be limited to or by time. Time is a function of creation, and God, as the creator, is therefore prior to time.52 He is present in time, but does not regard it in relation to human beings. Swedenborg notes two things in this connection, the first is that God is not in or bound by time. The second teaching is that when God looks at people, He regards only infinite and eternal things in that person.53 These and other similar passages in Swedenborg's writings show clearly that Calvin's time-based ideas of predestination run counter to his idea of God. A final consideration is that in all His dealings with humanity, God never deviates from His set goal of creation, which is a heaven from the human race.54
Calvin's double predestination, therefore, is opposite to both Servetus' and Swedenborg's ideas of God's actions. Their God reaches into human hearts, He respects and preserves spiritual freedom. Servetus describes God as "freedom itself, since he is infinitely superior to all external and compelling influences. And as God is freedom itself, so he grants to man to will freely and act freely, within certain limits."55 In agreement with this, Swedenborg points out that "if a person is not saved, it is not the Lord who is to blame but the person; and he is to blame for failing to co-operate."56
Neither Catholicism nor Protestantism, therefore, is able to resolve the issues of salvation for either Servetus or Swedenborg. The Tripersonal Trinity influences all the systems. Thus the rejection of the traditional Trinity necessitated another look at how people are saved while at the same time retaining the concept of a single God visible in the person of Jesus Christ. Again, their ideas were remarkably similar.
The Internal Man top
A key element in the soteriology of both Servetus and Swedenborg is the "inward man," an inner degree or level of humanity that looks up towards God. This inner man is a plane into which God can operate and from which He leads people to freedom. Check Luther on the internal man. I think it is condemned by original sin.
Servetus describes this internal man as "Christ Himself," but lest he be accused of divinizing human beings, he continues,
This is not to say that we are equal to Christ; for that matter we are not equal to each other. But Christ communicates to us His glory. . .57
The presence of Christ in the internal man is the counterbalance to human evil. By His presence there, Christ is able to renew the spirit, and from that to both affect and be present in the body. Thus by means of the internal man people have the ability to be linked to God, to grow spiritually and so also recede from sin in daily life, so that people become images of Christ. "He is formed in us and the outward man declines."58
The internal man plays an equally important role in Swedenborg's theology where it is a vast and crucial subject with hundreds of references scattered through his works. The internal man is a plane of the human mind that makes it possible for people to look up towards heaven, as opposed to the external man which is closely related to the body and the mind's preoccupation with the things of this world.59 He describes the internal man in terms very similar to those used by Servetus:
The internal man residing in everyone is the Lord's alone, for the Lord there stores away the goods and truths which He confers on man from earliest childhood. By way of these He flows from the internal man into the interior or rational man, and by way of this into the external man; and in this way man is enabled to think and be man.60
While people live in this world, they are not necessarily aware of their internal man. The issues of daily life often crowd out higher, spiritual concerns. Yet the Lord's presence on that level of the mind makes it possible for people to be drawn out of merely selfish or worldly concerns and be led into higher, more heavenly states. The internal and external man with those motivated by selfish objectives is, therefore, in disagreement. The external, looking towards the world and its gratifications, closes off the internal, the light of heaven is shut off. However,
With people who are regenerate the internal man and the external man appear as though they are united; but in fact they are the Lord's, for the things that are in agreement are the Lord's, whereas those that are not are man's.61
Thus both Servetus and Swedenborg posit a place for God within the human being, which is not to say that either of them sees humans as an extension of God, but rather as motivated by and in harmony with Him in spiritual matters. It could be argued that both would see this presence of God in the internal man as the activity of the Holy Spirit in people. Both describe how this God's presence in the internal man descends into and vivifies the external or natural man, rooting spiritual life in the natural or external life of this world. Again, both see the internal man as incorruptible in it's own right, but capable of losing it's power to affect the external man according to the choices people make. Servetus describes this,
A conspicuous sin, which destroys the grace of Christ, is sin to death, for which there will be no praying, is a sin against the Holy Spirit. He who thus sins, by that [sin] truly murders Christ in himself. Thus Christ today is killed in us, by our impiety murdering Him, when we are inwardly overwhelmed by faithlessness and vices of the flesh.62
In a very similar vein, Swedenborg describes those who sin, who live merely in the external man without the guidance of the internal man, lose the ability to be affected by the Lord. The internal in itself is not destroyed, but closed off so that it is no longer able to flow into or affect people to good. Essentially people in sin cut themselves off from the activity of the Holy Spirit, which in Servetus' terms is equivalent to "murdering Christ in himself." Without the guiding presence of the Lord, a "path is opened to the world, and his development is to conform with what is hellish."63 Such people "enjoy only natural light, they believe nature is self-created instead of created by God, and they see falsity as truth and experience evil as good."64
Finally, two key ideas, common to both Servetus and Swedenborg emerge from their descriptions of the internal man. The first is that the internal descends into the external gradually. In the Restitutio Christianismi this descent is more implied in the language Servetus uses, for example when he says, "the more He insinuates Himself into our body, the more is our inward man said to grow in Christ."65 There is a progression of Christ's presence from our internal man to the external, a presence that grows and develops. Similarly Swedenborg describes the ordering of the external man by the internal as a process taking place during the entire course of human life. The concept, then, is that spiritual development does not happen in an instant. There is no moment of instantaneous salvation or conversion. Rebirth, like natural birth, is a process of conception, gestation and finally birth itself.66
The second essential element in this concept of the internal man is the teaching of free will. By His presence in the internal man, Christ brings qualities of the Divine into human lives, and central to those is freedom of choice. Servetus argues that Christ acted freely in this world,
And as He Himself freely willed, and was able, thus He gave to people free will and ability, within certain limits. God made this Divine art, just as there is Divine art in man. The Divine Mind itself shines out in man. Certainly Adam himself or Christ, or angels, had free choice.67
Swedenborg stresses freedom throughout his works. He describes the Divine government of human beings as the freedom to act according to reason,68 and "therefore the Lord guards freedom in man as man guards the pupil of his eye."69 Without freedom of choice, the freedom to turn to the presence of God in the internal man, the human being would be lost to hell. As Servetus and Swedenborg reject the ideas of merit, faith alone and predestination, the only path open to salvation, therefore, is the embrace of freedom of choice as a gift from God, and dedication to developing a spiritual life based on those choices.
Human Freedom top
The cornerstone of salvation for both Servetus and Swedenborg is the freedom of human beings to cooperate with God in their own salvation. The issue of free will long predated Christianity, and has been argued in various ways since the beginning of the Church. St. Augustine of Hippo laid a foundation for future Christian theology when he posited the idea that God, because He is omnipotent and omniscient, has absolute control over the human will. Thus He knows beforehand what choices each individual will make, and consequently the outcome of either salvation or damnation. In the final analysis, Augustine's doctrine leads to predestination.70
Later Catholic scholars argued that Augustine's teaching limited God to issues of time and space, and raised the question of how God could reward or punish people for actions beyond their control. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that God acts into people, inclining them towards cooperating with Him, while at the same time preserving the individual's liberty to not cooperate should he so choose. Thus those who are saved are those who cooperate with the promotion of God, those who are lost resist it. In this way both God's presence and the freedom of the will are preserved.
However, the Reformers rejected this teaching. Returning to a more fundamental reading of Augustine, both Luther and Calvin denied human free will. For Luther, the sin of Adam so completely destroyed human ability to cooperate with God that the only possible means of salvation is grace given by God in response to the belief that Christ died on the cross for their sins. People are saved by this faith alone apart from any activity in life. Calvin took an even more rigid position. People are not in control of their own acts, but are moved by God in a series of predetermined choices. "As a consequence, man is predestined before his birth to eternal punishment or reward in such fashion that he never can have had any real free-power over his own fate."71
It is interesting to note that Protestant theology distinguishes between free will in spiritual matters and free will in natural matters.72 The human condition prevents people from cooperating with God from their own volition. The impetus to do so must come initially from God, as do all their actions leading to salvation. This does not affect people's ability to make choices for good or evil in their natural lives. However, because of the inherent sinful nature of humanity, even good choices freely made in the natural world do not contribute to salvation.
For Servetus, the freedom of choice, in spiritual and natural things, is not only a gift from God, but it is the image of God in the human being. Consider the following passage:
God is freedom itself, since He is infinitely superior to all external compelling influences. And as God is freedom itself, so He grants to man to will freely and act freely, within certain limits.73
Servetus carries the idea of freewill beyond simply the choice between good and evil. It is the very essence of the human being, a gift from the Lord that gives the human being key elements reflecting the Divine.
As He Himself freely willed, and was able, thus He gave to people free will, and ability, within certain limits. God made this Divine art, just as there is Divine art in man. The Divine mind itself shines out in man. Certainly Adam himself or Christ or angels have free choice.74
However, freedom can be used for good or ill. True freedom is the freedom to cooperate with God and its exercise brings union with Him.
The highest freedom, however, lies in obedience, and in it at the same time resides the loveliest reward of freedom.75
Swedenborg's teachings on human freedom coincide closely with Servetus'. For Swedenborg the essential relationship between God and human beings is a reciprocation of love.76 For God this love is expressed in the mercy and wisdom of His dealings with people with the intention of drawing them into His presence, being united with them, and blessing them.77 People reciprocate this love when, from faith learned from the Word, they turn from lives of evil towards the Lord. In order for this reciprocation to be genuine, people need to respond to Him in a state of spiritual freedom and from choice. Thus freedom is the first and greatest gift, after life itself that God has given the human being. Swedenborg elaborates this teaching in many areas of his works, but it is important to notice several key teachings.
First, in God's government, or Providence, God provides that all people should be able to act from freedom according to their reason.78 Swedenborg describes this as a spiritual freedom, thus the freedom to choose good or evil, right or wrong. He also teaches that there are different types of freedom, for example, the freedom to act from a selfish will, the freedom to act hypocritically or the freedom to act in harmony with God.79
For both Servetus and Swedenborg, freedom is the key to human spiritual life. It is true that it is impacted by the fall of the human race. However, the fall did not deprive people of spiritual freedom, it merely twisted freedom and reoriented it towards selfishness—which Swedenborg terms "natural freedom." This lowest type of human freedom is confederation with Satan. People are not condemned because of original sin, but from the sin's committed in freedom through the concurrence of thought and will in spite of knowing that the activity is in fact a sin.
Human freedom, therefore, puts people in a very different position from that held by the traditional Christian Churches. While the Catholics recognize some freedom, the Lutherans and Calvinists deny it. In their theology the human being has no power whatever to affect their spiritual development in anyway, except, in the case of Lutherans, to believe in the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ. Reformation Calvinists did not even have this choice, their spiritual life was predetermined for them.
Because people have freedom in spiritual matters, and since sin is a matter of choice, it follows then that for both Servetus and Swedenborg salvation is a matter of choice as well. People play an active role in their salvation, not the passive role ascribed to them by Protestants. Before examining the process of salvation in both systems, it needs to be born in mind that as traditional concepts of salvation sprang from the Trinitarian relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so Servetus and Swedenborg, in rejecting those relationships, needed to develop an alternative.
Again they conceived remarkably similar ideas. Christ did not enter the world as the Second Person of the Trinity in order to die for people's sins either as a sacrifice or as satisfaction. Rather, Jesus Christ the man was the Son, He was the face of God, the Word incarnate. Upon His resurrection He "returned" to God, he "regressed from man to God"80 and in doing so, made human regeneration possible. Servetus wrote that in Christ,
Divine things descended to human things, as human things ascended to divine things. That man himself, Christ Jesus, was carried up into such glory and power that nothing more can be said. That crucified Jesus Himself is equal to God.81
Swedenborg said almost exactly the same thing in his work The True Christian Religion:
The Lord from eternity, who is Jehovah, came into the world to subdue the hells and to glorify His Human. Without this no mortal could have been saved, and those are saved who believe in Him.82
A key similarity between these ideas is that the Divine descended to the human, He took on a human form and made it possible for people to be saved. While Servetus has no "mechanism" for how Christ did this he is clear that the glorified Christ has all the power of God, thus "He is infinite, as regards to both the understanding and power, and duration and space."83 Although Servetus does not explain the process of glorification, he does indicate that it was a process completed over the period of Christ's life culminating in the passion of the cross.
[T]hat whole glory and power of the Father, Christ did not fully obtain by divine dispensation until the will was confirmed by his own death and he himself was glorified through the passion. After this glorification, Christ truly so possesses all things that no name, no glory, no power, no honour, is able to be attributed to God unless it is applicable to Christ also.84
Swedenborg explains the doctrine of the "glorification" in which Jesus in this world, as a Divine soul clothed in a human body, was tempted by evil spirits from hell. Drawing from His Divine power, He fought the power of hell and overcame it, thus freeing people from its deadly influence. Salvation is the process of people using the Divine power of God to freely choose to fight the evils of their own lives. By imitating Christ in this way, they are drawn out of their evils and united to heaven. Thus salvation is a process imitative of Christ's own process in this world. It ties in very closely to Servetus' statement that the Divine became human in order that human's might ascend to the Divine—with the distinction that they are conjoined to the Divine in a bond of love, but do not become Divine themselves, as Christ did.
The process of "ascending to the Divine" has to be made in freedom. Thus it is a series of choices based on knowledge, and acted out in life, which, when done over the course of life breaks the hereditary tendencies towards evil and so delivers people from hell. Since freedom depends on knowledge, it is important to begin the exploration of the process of salvation with a study of Servetus and Swedenborg's ideas of faith and its expression in charitable action.
Faith and Charity top
For Servetus faith is a very different proposition than the faith put forward by the Reformers. Since he rejected the faith alone of the Lutherans as premised on the divided Trinity, he dedicates a portion of his work Christianismi Restitutio to defining faith. In keeping with his doctrine on the nature of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God, it follows that Servetus' concept of faith is absolutely Christocentric. There is no need to focus faith on either the "Father" or the "Holy Spirit" because both of these are present in Christ. Thus he wrote,
In Christ alone is God, and in him the origin of all deity. Nowhere does God breathe, except through the spirit of Christ; nowhere does He speak, except by the means of the voice of Christ; nowhere does He enlighten, except by means of the light of Christ.85
True faith is faith in Jesus Christ—"true faith is to believe in Him."86 Later in the same section he wrote, "our true faith is in the resuscitation of Christ,"87 which is the substance of all spiritual life, and by means of faith, expressed in action, we are joined to Christ as a husband to a wife.88 Faith in Christ is the only way of rejecting sin from a person's life, for by means of faith people are purified of sin and harmonize their lives with Christ's, so that His life, through the gift of freely given grace, is present in them.89 All salvation, therefore, rests on this faith.
Faith in Christ, however, is not merely a mental exercise. It cannot be separated from action. The idea articulated in the twenty-first Epistle to Calvin, links faith to obedience. Thus Servetus says, "I define faith to be obedience, because we have obedience by means of faith [or would it be more accurate to say, we have faith by means of obedience?]."90 Servetus' idea of faith is complex and cannot be separated from obedience to Him. Obedience produces action, and action "hardens into habit, and another action comes up, is joined with it."91 Progressively, people are recreated through the interaction of faith, action and habit and the life of Christ is ingrained in them.
Servetus is adamant that faith alone has no value. Charity and good works, arising from an obedient faith, develop, form and anchor a person's faith, enriching and empowering it. If faith is not carried out into action, it dies: "just as from actions habits have strength, as exercises strengthen the body, and reading strengthens the mind, so good works strengthen faith."92 There is a seamless development from faith to action to habit, or from belief to a life of charity. In the process sins are removed, and the person purified.
In trying to trace the development of faith as Servetus understands it, it seems to arise from the knowledge of Christ as given in the Gospels, a faith in His resurrection and a commitment to obeying His teachings. The proof of faith is not the knowledge, but the use of the knowledge, which in turn gives new insights leading to deeper and more perfect faith. Thus he wrote, "the first thing of faith is to be habit from action, for each action can be affirmed afterwards by words."93 Faith precedes, becomes action and habit, then is confirmed by words, or a reasoning process. That reasoning process becomes part of the cycle, forming a new plane of faith in the person's mind.
At the same time, this cycle is also linked to hope in Christ94 that action based on His teaching cleanses people of sin, making conjunction with God possible. It is in faith that people experience the power of God as He pulls them towards Himself and into favor, which implies that He also pulls them away from disbelief and from evil. Thus faith in God is faith in God's saving action in human lives. However, knowledge of God's action and faith in that action are different things. Knowledge can be preserved in the intellect and not truly affect a person's life. But in this case knowledge is not faith.
However, Servetus is not trading external actions under the guise of faith. A life of "fortitude, continence, chastity and other things"95 is a product of faith to the degree that it leads back to faith. Thus faith has the important component of confidence that Christ is pulling people toward Him and vivifying them with His Spirit.96
Servetus' refrain throughout the Christianismi Restitutio is that faith saves, but it is faith in Christ as God incarnate, not as the Second Person of a Trinity of Persons. As Christ showed His power in this world by word and deed, so people show and strengthen their faith through imitation of Christ, through the acts of their lives: "fides est credere, credendi actus factum est."97
Swedenborg's treatment of faith follows a very similar path to Servetus'. The doctrine of the Trinity, he says, introduced ideas into the Church that are "so many paradoxes which are repugnant to sound reason."98 Reason can only be reconciled if one sees Jesus Christ as God incarnate.
The reason why we must believe, that is, have faith in God the Saviour Jesus Christ is that it is faith in a visible God, in whom there is an invisible God; and faith in a visible God, who is man and at the same time God, enters into a person.99
Swedenborg argues that faith in a divided Trinity can only be natural because, apart from being a false concept, it leads the mind into naturalistic ideas about the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Similarly, should one have faith in Christ and yet not recognize Him as divine, as Socinians and the Arians do, the faith is empty, for it is faith in a man. Faith of this sort is a firm conviction, but it only mimics true faith in the soteriological work of Christ.100 If, on the other hand, one directs faith to the invisible Father, then the faith is blind, for it has no object for the Father by definition is above human comprehension and unknowable.101 Servetus and Swedenborg agree that one cannot have faith in the unknown.102 The only true object of faith, then, is in the glorified Jesus Christ, for in Him the invisible God is made visible, thus knowable and so the object of faith. Faith in practice is faith in the process Christ passed through as He made His human divine.
The essence of Swedenborg's faith is two-fold: to know the teachings of God's Word and to live according to them.103 Knowledge is a matter of learning, acknowledging the truth of the learning and then using it to guide and direct daily life. People who do this have true faith, emulating Christ's glorification process in their own lives. Such a faith initiates people into the spiritual life of repentance, in which they see the evil tendencies and actual sins of their lives contrasted against the ideals of the Gospel.
While Servetus calls on people to repent, Swedenborg outlines a process of repentance, initiated by faith.104 Although he describes this process in several places, there are four main elements: first those who wish to establish a life of faith need to examine themselves thoroughly. Swedenborg held that there was no point in a general admittance that one was a sinner. If people are responsible for sin, and if they need to cooperate with Christ to remove those sins, then they need to focus on particular sins rather than simply pronouncing themselves sinners. A general acknowledgment that one is a sinner, while it may be true, does not equip a person with the necessary self knowledge to consciously cooperate with God to remove the sin. Further, finding sins is more than simply observing actions, people need to look more deeply at themselves, at their intentions, at what they would do if fear of punishment were removed or if absolute freedom was allowed.105
An admission of guilt is appropriate after self examination.106 People cannot break the hold of their evils and sins unless they accept responsibility for them. Thus Swedenborg carries his readers back to the theme that people are not condemned for the sin of Adam, but for their freely chosen actions. If they make choices freely, then they also have freedom to correct them. But this can only begin with people taking responsibility. The third step follows from this: earnest prayer to the Lord for forgiveness and for help to fight against and overcome the sin so that one can be purified.107 Swedenborg taught that although people appear to fight against evil from their own power, true power comes from Christ.108 The desire and willingness to overcome evil, is evidence of the presence of God within people: "the Lord has also guided the person in self-examination, disclosed the sins, and inspired sadness and together with this an effort to desist from them and begin a new life."109
The final step in this process is closely linked with Servetus' teaching that faith is action. After turning to Christ, the penitent commits to a new life, taking active measures to avoid the evil, to stop the thought, to prevent the deed. This is perhaps the most difficult step which takes a life-time to accomplish. It is accompanied by the pains of temptation and the bitter conflict within people between the regenerating side and the part that wishes to return to a life of evil. These temptations mirror on a human scale the temptations Christ faced during His life in this world. Thus the process of regeneration as Swedenborg describes it, is an image of Christ's own journey.
In this way Swedenborg describes faith as much more than intellectual belief. It begins with learning, but in order to become real it must be anchored in a life of activity, very similar to Servetus' teaching that faith is action. Swedenborg defines the action of faith as charity, saying that "faith without charity is no faith, and charity without faith is no charity, and both are lifeless unless the Lord gives them life."110 In another passage he says, "The Lord, charity and faith make one, just as in a person life, will and understanding do; if they are separated, each of them is destroyed, like a pearl collapsing into dust."111
While Swedenborg's definition of charity includes the concept of good works, he teaches that good works are a product of the union of faith and charity in a regenerating person.112 True charity begins in faith when people learn truth and repent from evil and sin. This inner discipline generates a desire to avoid evil so that harmful actions are blocked in the bodily life. In the little work, The Doctrine of Life, Swedenborg uses the axiom that "one who avoids evil does good" to show a truly reciprocal relationship between God and people is only possible when people exercise their spiritual freedom and act on their faith. He wrote,
[w]ho does not know, or may not know, that evils prevent the Lord's entrance into man? For evil is hell, and the Lord is heaven, and hell and heaven are opposites; so far therefore as man is in one, so far he cannot be in the other; for one acts against and destroys the other.113
In the process of fighting evil, learned truths become a part of life, inscribed as it were, on a new will for goodness, implanted in the regenerating person by God. Thus by shunning evil one does good, shunning adultery leads to a love of marriage and the actions of a faithful spouse.114 Shunning theft leads to honesty.115 In Swedenborg's system faith introduces the process and points the way, charity is the work of turning from evil, and good works are the result. The good resulting from faith in turn produces new insights into the nature of faith, new understanding of the truth, and so the cycle begins anew. Separate any part of this process from the whole and the entire structure collapses.
A further similarity between Servetus and Swedenborg in this process is the development of the relationship between the internal and external man. As was shown earlier, all people have an internal man, the presence of Christ within them. This internal man is opened towards God by a life of faith and charity, for in once sense it is true that these come from God and are the activity of the Holy Spirit in people's lives.116 When people act from a union of faith and charity, the internal man flows into the external, vivifying it. In this way, God is present in the whole person, from internals to externals.117
The sum of salvation for both Servetus and Swedenborg is a union of faith and charity. The division of the Trinity in to the co-relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each with a distinct relationship to humanity, left the church in the difficult position of making sense of the means of salvation. Because it was believed that Christ, as the Second Person of the Trinity, took on a human form, and since the Second Person, by definition, was perfect, it followed that the human housing Him had to be perfect as well. This is the source of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the veneration of Mary. While Protestants deny the Immaculate Conception, and downplay Mary's role in theology, both Catholic and Protestant theology revolve around the concept that Christ never underwent any change during His life on earth, apart form the normal human changes of growing up.
How then do people relate to an unchanging God? The only answer is to reconcile with Him not by intrinsic change, but by external acts. The mechanical religion of the Middle Ages was a good example of this, people "win" favour with God through acts of piety. The Protestants traded Catholic piety for faith alone.
Thus in rejecting the Trinity, Servetus and Swedenborg also rejected the soteriological doctrines flowing from it. Both saw Jesus Christ as a man, subject to human limitations, both saw Him as the Son of God, related to the Divinity by an inner connection that developed during the course of His life in this world. Finally, they both saw Him after the resurrection as God, now in a visible form. At the core of both theologies is the dynamic concept of progress and change within the humanity of Jesus Christ.
It is precisely this dynamism that informs the soteriology of both men. If Christ underwent a process whereby He became what Swedenborg terms a "Divine Human," then the proper relationship of people is to copy that process in their own lives. People are to walk in Christ's footsteps, and, drawing on His power, be recreated into His image and likeness, until their internal man is Christ in them. Spiritual life, therefore, is neither a mechanical piety, nor a static faith; it is a living, consciously energetic, response to Christ's presence and activity in human life.
Differences between Servetus and Swedenborg top
Despite these similarities, there are some important differences between the soteriology of Servetus and Swedenborg. These are summed up in the differences relating to baptism and the role it plays in salvation. In orthodox Christian theology, baptism washes away the stain of original sin, putting people into a new relationship with Christ and making it possible for people to receive Christ's saving grace. The Lutherans teach that baptism "effects the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and confers everlasting salvation upon all who believe it, as the words and promises of God declare."118 Calvin taught that "baptism is a sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God's children."119 In his view, baptism is the sacrament of repentance inaugurating a new spiritual life. The effect of baptism is, therefore, life long.
Both Servetus and Swedenborg, taking issue with the doctrines concerning the human condition, and of the Trinity behind these ideas, saw the institution of baptism as an important step along the human spiritual journey, but they saw the use and efficacy of the sacrament in very different ways.
For Servetus baptism was the epitome of spiritual life. In the Christianismi Restitutio he undertakes to weave together a definition of baptism from the Word of God. The result is a twenty-five point summary of teachings from the New Testament on the effects of baptism. Essentially these points can be grouped into several categories:
- Baptism is a symbolic reenactment of Christ's death and resurrection. As Christ lay down His earthly life, so people lay down the life of evil and sin. Christ's death is symbolized in the immersion and His resurrection into Divine life by the Christian rising from the depths of the water.
- Thus baptism is as a washing away of sin, which can only be truly effective if connected with repentance and prayer, and so is part of the spiritual washing, purification and sanctification of Christians.
- The result is the recreation of a new Christian, one gifted with a new life from God and the presence of the Holy Spirit. However, these gifts do not come with the act of baptism itself, but rather the continuing state of hearing and responding to the Word of the Lord throughout life.
- Finally, by baptism one is bound in an insoluble bond with Christ. The person's internal man is now in complete harmony with Christ, and is recreated into His image and likeness. This bond can be broken by relapsing into evil, and such a break is irreparable. 120
Baptism, then, is a sum of all religious experience. It contains far more than the sacrament itself. Servetus' opening definition of baptism in his list is telling: "baptism is wetting, with instruction, and laying on hands."121 It is possible, then, to interpret Servetus' idea of baptism in two ways. The first is the act itself, the immersion into water in a symbolic representation of Christ's death and resurrection. The second is to consider baptism as a symbolic representation of immersion into the teaching, the "doctrina" of Christ, which is the beginning of true faith. Probably Servetus held both these positions, as he stresses the importance of faith as he defines it, obedience to Christ, as a requisite for salvation. Yet at the same time he stressed the importance of the physical deed, arguing the importance of water.
Regeneration, I maintain, comes through baptism; you say that Christ thought nothing of water. But is it not written that we are born anew of water? And is it not of water that Paul speaks when he designates baptism the Laver of Regeneration, saying, "We are cleansed from sin by washing with water?"122
Baptism is the act of rebirth; by means of it people are made new creatures and transferred from the kingdom of hell to the kingdom of heaven.123 But this only happens to those who are in faith, which, as was shown above, is knowledge of Christ and action according to His teachings. There is a merging, then, of two ideas in Servetus' teaching on Baptism: the importance of knowledge and action as the core of faith, and the physical act of baptism itself. Both need to be present, and neither is effective without the other.
For this reason, Servetus saw baptism as properly being offered only to adults. He was strongly opposed to baptizing infants for two reasons: first they did not have any evil to repent from, and secondly, repentance requires a rational mind and the freedom to act according to choices. He rejected outright the teaching the unbaptized children who die are separated from God, a notion based on the doctrine of original sin. God, He maintained, blessed unbaptized children in the New Testament. Would He reject those whom He blessed? Religious experience belongs to adulthood. Prior to twenty years old people do not have the ability to truly repent.124
On the surface, Swedenborg takes a very different view of baptism. Firstly, he is not at all opposed to the idea of infant baptism.
Not only are infants baptized, but also all foreign proselytes converted to the Christian religion, whether young or old; and this is done before they have been instructed, provided they express their desire to embrace Christianity, into which they are inaugurated by Baptism.125
In Swedenborg's system, infant baptism plays a key role in the development of spirituality. Infant baptized on earth are introduced, in the spirit, to the care of Christian angels who care for them and keep them in a mental state in which they are willing to receive faith in the Lord.126 This state changes as children grow into adulthood and the latent tendencies of their hereditary evil assert themselves. During these changes the angels withdraw allowing people the freedom to choose their own spiritual associations. However, the foundation laid during those early childhood years makes it possible for adults to chose. Infantile faith does not have to dissipate but can convert into the genuine, freely chosen faith of adulthood. From this point of view, baptism is a promise that people will be able, if they are taught, to know about Jesus Christ and follow Him.127 Following Christ is the point of baptism, for people are regenerated as they put their love for evil aside and obey Christ's commandments instead. Baptism, therefore, is a promise of the possibility of regeneration, should people choose to be regenerated.
Baptism is an external symbol of an internal spiritual process. It represents the spiritual washing, but is not in itself such a washing. Swedenborg wrote,
All regeneration is effected by the Lord, through the truths of faith and a life according to them. Baptism, therefore testifies that the man is of the church, and that he can be regenerated; for in the church the Lord is acknowledged, who alone regenerates, and there also is the Word, which contains the truths of faith, by which regeneration is effected.128
Thus baptism "does not give faith or salvation, but testifies that they may receive faith and be saved, if they are regenerated."129 In Swedenborg's teachings, baptism is an entry into the church, but that entrance has to be confirmed in the life of those baptized through the process of repentance, temptation and finally victory.
While Servetus and Swedenborg see baptism, especially paedobaptism from different points of view, there are some similarities beneath the surface. For Servetus baptism is a summing up of the entire regenerative process, while Swedenborg, allowing for infant baptism describes it as an entry point into the regenerative process. It would seem that these two ideas are poles apart. However, their common thought regarding regeneration crosses this external divide. Looked at from Swedenborg's point of view, Servetus's teaching on baptism are reconcilable if one considers the essential nature of the water of baptism.
Neither Servetus nor Swedenborg allow the water to be water itself, or merely a liquid. Servetus has said that "baptism is wetting, with instruction, and laying on hands."130 The key element tying this to Swedenborg is "instruction."131 Swedenborg teaches that the water of baptism represents the truth of the Word.
By means of the truths of faith also a person is regenerated. This was meant by the washings used in former times for ritual cleansings; and the same thing is also meant at the present day by the waters of baptism. For the waters are a sign of the truths of faith, by means of which evils are removed, and baptism is a sign of regeneration.132
It is not the act of baptism that gives faith or regenerates people, but the truth symbolized by it. When that truth is accepted and lived, then it becomes living truth which the power of the Holy Spirit renewing spiritual life. There is then a confluence between Servetus and Swedenborg on the essential use of baptism, although they disagree on the timing of the sacrament.
Each of the points of similarity between Michael Servetus and Emanuel Swedenborg outlined in this paper need further study. There may be more areas of compatibility in the vast corpus of their works, as indeed there may also be other areas of disagreement. The lack of evidence that Swedenborg ever read or knew of Servetus raises the question of how two men two hundred years apart could develop such similar teachings, sometimes even echoing each others words to describe the same thing.
One possible answer lies in the similarity of the idea of God. The Trinitarian concept coloured and affected every detail of Christian thought from Nicaea onwards. The Church, through the medieval period, enforced both the orthodoxy and its soteriological derivatives—as witnessed by Servetus' fate at the hands of both the French Inquisition and John Calvin. Thus instead of each generation of theologians assessing the Church's theology from a fresh vantage point, they confirmed, embroidered onto and developed ideas that ended up with the soteriological issues of human freedom, salvation by faith alone and predestination. Each of these is a product of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.
When one rejects this doctrine in toto, all the subsequent doctrines have to be re-analysed as well. Servetus and Swedenborg came to very similar concepts regarding the nature of God, drawn from the teachings of the Bible. Their commitment to Jesus Christ as the visible face of the invisible God challenged the teaching of Christ's mission on earth. If He did not die for human sins as a vicarious atonement, or sacrifice, what then did He do, and what does He expect people to do in response? The passivity of orthodox Christianity rests on Christ carrying human sins and thereby putting Himself in an intercessory position. But if Christ is a revelation of an invisible God, then regeneration cannot be passive. Faith alone is not enough. People need to play an active part in the process.
The similarity of understanding about God had lead to a similarity of understanding about the soteriological process. Both Servetus and Swedenborg rest on the same principles, which forms, as it were, the first link in the chain of doctrine following. Each, by close scrutiny of the Old and New Testaments, found teachings and concepts about God, people and the process of salvation that each added links to the developing chain of doctrine hanging from that first link.
If this is true, then the similarity of their teaching about God and salvation is no coincidence: it is the logical result of a first principle determining those following, and because their first principles were so similar, their teaching about salvation was similar. Each believed that the Nicene Trinity was a destructive error, and that their understanding of God would usher in a genuine spirituality. Thus Servetus titled his book Restitutio Christianismi—the "Restoration of Christianity," and Swedenborg, The True Christian Religion. Both believed that by a return to basic biblical concepts, uncoloured by Trinitarian ideas, people could be lead into a true relationship with Jesus Christ, the visible face of God.
1 For a detailed description of their rejection of the Trinity, may I refer you to my book, Servetus, Swedenborg and the Nature of God, published by the University Press of America, 2005.
2 Consider Servetus' argument to the judges at his trial in Geneva: "Those who maintain that there are three substantial persons or hypostases in God, insinuate three Gods, equal by nature" (Odhner 1910:68). Swedenborg deals with this subject in 134 passages spread across his writings. One example suffices: "It is perfectly plain from the following passage in the Athanasian Creed that a Trinity of Divine persons from eternity is a Trinity of Gods" (True Christian Religion 172).
3 Apocalypse Revealed 263. See also Apocalypse Revealed 481, Apocalypse Revealed 532, Apocalypse Revealed 537, Apocalypse Revealed 550 and Brief Exposition 88 where the same idea is repeated.
4 Christianismi Restitutio 5.
5 Colossians 2:9.
6 Apocalypse Revealed 490.
7 Consider Swedenborg's statement: "The Churches which separated themselves at the Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church dissent in various points, but they all agree on the Articles concerning a Trinity of Persons in the Godhead, Original Sin from Adam, the Imputation of Christ's Merit, and Justification by Faith Alone." (Brief Exposition 17)
8 Divine Love and Wisdom 13.
9 True Christian Religion 163—emphasis added.
10 Luther 1520.
11 Luther 1521.
12 Luther 1521.
13 Luther 1521.
14 Calvin 1.4.14.
15 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. II.1.5.
16 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. II.1 6.
17 Christianismi Restitutio 357.
18 Willis 1877:215.
19 Isaiah 12:20.
20 Willis 1877:215.
21 See Revelation 20:2.
22 Christianismi Restitutio 362.
23 A fuller explanation of the fall of the human race is found in Arcana Coelestia, in the first volume.
24 By "church" Swedenborg means a dispensation by which people have been led to God. There have been five "churches" since the beginning of the world: the Most Ancient, represented by Adam, the Ancient, which spanned history from the flood to the time of Christ. When the Ancient Church turned to idolatry, the Israelitish/Jewish Church prepared the way for Christ. The Christian Church following Christ, and the New Church, instituted in 1770.
25 Coronis 33.
26 Arcana Coelestia 194.
27 Christianismi Restitutio 362.
28 Willis 1877:216.
29 Bettenson 1981:53.
30 Christianismi Restitutio 387.
31 Apocalypse Revealed 0.
32 Odhner 1910:61.
33 Christianismi Restitutio 593.
34 Arcana Coelestia 4563, and many other passages.
35 True Christian Religion 521.
36 True Christian Religion 521.
37 Willis 1877:217.
38 Apocalypse Revealed 0.
39 Odhner 1910:58.
40 Christianismi Restitutio 288.
41 Christianismi Restitutio 300.
42 Compare this to the statement attributed to Tertullian, credo quia absurdum.
43 Doctrine of Faith 1
44 Bouwsma 1988:172.
45 Odhner 1910:61.
46 Odhner 1910:61.
47 Christianismi Restitutio 54. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
48 Christianismi Restitutio 285. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
49 Christianismi Restitutio 285. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
50 Christianismi Restitutio 54. See also Christianismi Restitutio 285. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
51 Divine Providence 330.
52 Swedenborg explains: "The reason why time and space were introduced into the cosmos was to distinguish one thing from another Time came into the natural world by the rotation of the earth on its axis The spiritual world does not possess material space and time corresponding to it. But there appear to be space and time there, the appearances answering to the differences of state affecting the minds of spirits and angels there." True Christian Religion 29.
53 Divine Providence 46.
54 Divine Providence 27 and following. This section deals with the teaching that the point of creation is a heaven from the human race. See also Divine Providence 331: "the Lord cannot act contrary to the laws of the divine providence, because to act contrary to them would be to act contrary to His divine love and His divine wisdom, thus contrary to Himself."
55 Odhner 1910:61, Christianismi Restitutio 54.
56 True Christian Religion 580.
57 Restitutio Christianismi 557. In light of other statements in this section of Christianismi Restitutio that "our inward man is God," it is important to keep this passage central. Servetus is describing the internal man "as Christ" by the presence. He is not implying that people are divine, which would appear to be the case if the latter parts of this passage are read out of context.
58 Restitutio Christianismi 557.
59 For full description of the internal and external man, see New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 47.
60 Arcana Coelestia 1707.
61 Arcana Coestia 1577.
62 Restitutio Christianismi 555. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
63 True Christian Religion 401.
64 True Christian Religion 401.
65 Restitutio Christianismi 557.
66 True Christian Religion 582. See also: Arcana Coelestia 9042; Divine Wisdom 4; Heaven and Hell 269 et al.
67 Restitutio Christianismi 54. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
68 Divine Providence 71 and following.
69 See Divine Providence 97 and following.
70 Catholic Encyclopedia. Free Will. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06259a.htm
71 Catholic Encyclopedia. Free Will. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06259a.htm
72 True Christian Religion 464, where Swedenborg quotes from the Formula of Concord.
73 Christianismi Restitutio 54. Compare with Christianismi Restitutio 285: "If Christ has a free will, and we have anything, we have been given the same by spirit and freedom" (Translation by Coleman Glenn).
74 Christianismi Restitutio 54. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
75 Christianismi Restitutio 383.
76 True Christian Religion 371; Divine Providence 92; Divine Providence 28 et al.
77 True Christian Religion 43.
78 Divine Providence 71.
79 Divine Providence 73.
80 Christianismi Restitutio 279. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
81 Christianismi Restitutio 279. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
82 True Christian Religion 2.
83 Christianismi Restitutio 279. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
84 Christianismi Restitutio 285. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
85 Christianismi Restitutio 281. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
86 Christianismi Restitutio 298.
87 Christianismi Restitutio 299.
88 Christianismi Restitutio 281. Translation by Coleman Glenn.
89 Christianismi Restitutio 630.
90 Chrsitianismi Restitutio 298.
91 Christianismi Restitutio 299.
92 Christianismi Restitutio 630.
93 Christianismi Restitutio 299.
94 Christianismi Restitutio 298.
95 Christianism Restitutio 298.
96 Christianismi Restitutio 297.
97 Christianismi Restitutio 606.
98 True Christian Religion 338.
99 True Christian Religion 339. See also True Christian Religion 343.
100 True Christian Religion 339.
101 True Christian Religion 339.
102 See Odhner 1910:59.
103 True Christian Religion 340.
104 For Swedenborg's full treatment on the subject of repentance, see True Christian Religion 510566.
105 True Christian Religion 532.
106 True Christian Religion 539. See also New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 160.
107 True Christian Religion 538. See also New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 161.
108 Arcana Coelestia 1937. See also Arcana Coelestia 1661, Apocalypse Explained 893, and other places.
109 True Christian Religion 539.
110 True Christian Religion 355.
111 True Christian Religion 362.
112 True Christian Religion 373.
113 Doctrine of Life 18.
114 Doctrine of Life 74.
115 Doctrine of Life 80.
116 True Christian Religion 142.
117 True Christian Religion 340.
118 The Christian Book of Concord. 1854:421.
119 Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.XV.1.
120 Christianismi Restitutio 572.
121 Christianismi Restitutio 570. "Baptismus est tinctio, cum doctrina, et manuum impositione."
122 Christianismi Restitutio 484.
123 Christianismi Restitutio 483.
124 Interestingly, Swedenborg says exactly the same thing. The rational mind, which is necessary for repentance and spiritual development is only fully opened at age twenty.
125 True Christian Religion 677.
126 True Christian Religion 677.
127 True Christian Religion 681.
128 New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 203.
129 New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 207.
130 Christianismi Restitutio 570. "Baptismus est tinctio, cum doctrina, et manuum impositione."
132 Arcana Coelestia 9088 and in frequent other passages.
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