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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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

4 Responses to Implications from Isaac Watts’s Trinitarian Controversy

  1. Scott,

    Sorry for commenting on this article so late but I’ve been reading J. Patrick Mullins’ new book on Jonathan Mayhew and he brings up some interesting points regarding Watts and Unitarianism He says that Mayhew was the first colonial pastor “to challenge Trinitarian Christianity explicitly and publicly.” Mullins suggests that Mayhew came to this position through his training at Harvard, with its emphasis on the Enlightenment and Natural Theology, and the reading of certain 18th century authors, such as Isaac Watts and his Logick textbook. It appears that Mayhew came to believe that reason was just as authoritative as Scripture and that doctrines that were not “reasonable,” such as the Trinity, should be rejected. It’s unclear to me if Mayhew took Watts further than he should have or if Watts actually advocated for that.

    Mullins writes, “Watts himself had displayed Newtonian boldness in repudiating a 1,400-year-old dogma. Like Samuel Clarke and many Protestant ministers in the early eighteenth-century, England, he was an Arian, one who rejects the mystery of the Trinity as contrary to reason and Scripture and describes Jesus Christ as a supernatural being but not God himself.” [28]

    That seems to go further than what you said regarding Watts and the Trinity on your YouTube video. So, I wanted to see what you thought about that. I’ve been interested in learning how it was that New England Puritanism slide so widely into Unitarianism. I hate the idea that Watts may have played a part in that.

  2. Hey, Andy. Thanks for this. I did this research explicitly because of comments like the one from Mullins you quoted. I wanted to see if charges like that were indeed true.

    I do think Mullins overstates the issue. Watts was never Arian; there’s no doubt about it. He called Arianism heresy. But it was exactly because he was trying to reach out to Arians and persuade them of the deity of Christ that led him to be unwise in how he articulated things.

    There is little doubt in my mind that Watts was personally orthodox in his trinitarian views. But there is also little doubt that he caused some trouble after his death. He wasn’t the only one, to be sure. But the growing tendency toward Unitarianism was only aided by some of his statements. Very unfortunate.

    Thankfully, as I say in the post above, while he may have in a small way contributed to some becoming Unitarian in the period shortly after his death, I would suggest his richly Trinitarian hymns have had a much greater impact on Christian belief.

  3. Thanks, Scott, for your response and for your work on this. Based on what you’ve said, I think it is likely that Mayhew took Watts further than he should have, but that Watts may have left himself open to that misrepresentation. Watts wasn’t the only influence, though, so he would not be totally to blame in any case.

    Mullens emphasized the rationalistic thought of some of the men that influenced Mayhew and highlighted Watt’s work regarding logic and reason as well. It seems that Watt’s aversion to creeds was something that Mayhew also embraced and if you don’t or won’t subscribe to a creed, then reason can lead you far astray. That’s another point of yours that is well taken.

    BTW, it seems odd that Mullens would so overstate Watt’s views. He states it as if it is just common knowledge.

  4. Yes, Watts very much did leave himself open to misinterpretation.

    My article on this is coming out in the Detroit journal any day now. I hope it at least provides some clarity for those interested.

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