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Implications from Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian Controversy

isaac-wattsYesterday at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, I presented a paper evaluating Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian views. I hope to get the paper published soon, but in the meantime, here are several of the very relevant implications I drew related to the boundary of Christian fellowship, the importance of church tradition and creeds, and the creedal power of doctrinal hymnody:

Christian Orthodoxy and Ecclesiastical Cooperation

First, Watts’s Trinitarian controversies illustrate well the importance and difficulties of determining the doctrinal boundaries of Christian orthodoxy and their effects upon ecclesiastical cooperation. This has been an issue, of course, with which Christians have wrestled since the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. In more recent times, the matter resurfaced with regard to the Fundamentalist/New Evangelical debates of the 1950s, The Southern Baptist controversies of the early 1980s, Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994, the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, and even debates regarding doctrinal requirements for membership in ETS. The contemporary tendency toward doctrinal minimalism with regard to Christian cooperation may have something important to learn from Isaac Watts’s doctrinal minimalism in early eighteenth-century Nonconformity.

Tradition and Creedalism

This leads to a second implication of Watts’s Trinitarian controversies, namely, the significance of church tradition and doctrinal creeds in articulating and protecting biblical orthodoxy. While it is certainly true that human creeds are fallible, Watts’s Trinitarian controversies emphasize the need for care whenever deviating from historic confessional language in attempting to articulate biblical doctrine. The particular terminology and formulas in historic creeds emerged with special care given to avoid heresy, and one should therefore not be surprised when, in departing from historically accepted formulas, he falls under the charge of heresy.[1] This is particularly true with the doctrine of the Trinity and has notable relevance for recent attempts to explain, like Watts, the language in Scripture of Christ’s submission to the Father.

Furthermore, claiming to have no creed but the Bible may sound noble and pious, but it is a fact of history that when individuals or groups completely reject confessional language, even with noble desires for Christian unity or biblical authority, they almost always end up with significant theological problems. And this is exactly the case with the Nonconformists in England following Watts: those who, like Watts, claimed to accept no human creed ended up fully denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and even the sufficient atonement of Christ.

The Creedal Benefit of Orthodox Hymns

Finally, the lasting legacy of Isaac Watts contains an irony relating to his Trinitarianism that uncovers another important implication for churches today. Isaac Watts is not most well-known today primarily as a theologian, much less as one with questionable Trinitarian views. Few Christians, even pastors, have read any of Watts’s treatises on the Trinity. Rather, Watts’s theological legacy comes from his hymns. Whether or not he regretted the clear Athanasian Trinitarianism in some of his hymns is irrelevant when considering his lasting impact; many of his hymns are strongly Trinitarian, and these have inarguably had a more lasting influence upon Christians and their worship than his treatises.

The irony here is that even the most anti-creedal free churches have been influenced theologically by creeds of another sort—hymns. A church’s songs do indeed more potently impact the theology of a congregation than that church’s Confessional statements. Whether or not Isaac Watts described the biblical Trinity using language that could lead to theological problems, thousands of Christians who have never read a single one of his treatises have learned to call Christ the “Prince of glory” and “my God” in “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “God the mighty maker” in “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed.” Rather than being negatively influenced by his philosophical musings about the nature of the godhead, more Christians have been impacted by hymn stanzas like this:

Almighty God, to thee
be endless honors done,
the undivided Three,
and the mysterious One:
where reason fails with all her pow’rs,
there faith prevails, and love adores.

Many Christians are explicitly Trinitarian because of Isaac Watts, not despite him.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

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