Isaac Watts: Trinitarian or Unitarian?

I was recently made aware of various questions and concerns regarding Isaac Watts’ views of the Trinity. The charge that is most commonly circulated is that Watts, the man who is often called the “father of English hymnody,” is said to have abandoned an orthodox view of the Trinity for that of Unitarianism towards the end of his life. When I first heard this charge, I began researching the matter for myself. It didn’t take long to realize that this entire matter would require a significant amount of time to evaluate. Thankfully, I came across an excellent article (and video, below) produced by Dr. Scott Aniol which surveys the matter very well:

Dr. Aniol serves as the Associate Professor and Chair of Worship Ministry at Southwestern Seminary, and has written extensively on the subject of worship and church hymnody. I believe that his summary of Watts is sound, reasonable, and effectively vindicates Watts in the end. In view of his careful treatment of this matter, I would like to offer some additional observations and warnings:

1. The Dangers of Celebritism, Past and Present: In 2015 I wrote a book entitled, My Banner is Christ, in which I address the grave dangers of “celebritism.” It should be noted that celebritism is merely an invented word that I use to describe the toxic realities of Evangelical-celebrity worship. Not only must we avoid the sin of exalting Evangelical leaders in the present day, but we must shun such celebritism with respect to the renowned saints of yesteryear. The sin of exalting the creature above the Creator is the same whether that creature is in glory, or still here on earth. I must confess that, when I first heard about the controversy regarding Watt’s view of the Trinity, I was filled with incredulity over the matter. This was primarily so because of my familiarity with the excellencies of Watts’ hymns, but there was also a tinge of personal deference towards Watts which made me want to disbelieve the matter immediately. Yet such personal deference must never stand in the way of the pursuit of objective truth. In view of this, I found Aniol’s mention of Douglas Bond’s cursory treatment of the controversy surrounding Watts quite interesting. Whatever can be said about the thoughts and intentions of Bond in the matter, he did his readers no favors by saying so little. We are called to exalt Christ, not mere men. If our careful examination of the celebrated saints of yesteryear leaves us with disappointment and disgust, then so be it. In the case of Watts, a deeper investigation by Bond would have issued a more cogent vindication of this father of English hymnody. In any circumstance, we should apply diligence when exploring the details of church history as best as possible, even if our discoveries are discouraging. Such experiences should remind us of our own creaturely frailty and, therefore, our great need to be watchful and vigilant guardians of our own life and doctrine.

2. The Dangers of Unjust Deconstructionism: As the reader already knows, the Internet can oftentimes be as helpful as it is dangerous. As it relates to the subject of history, some of the more dangerous elements of online media have recently surged via the Social Justice movement, replete with its Critical Theory deconstructionism of the past. Today, historic memorials are being toppled, and once respected theologians are readily vilified as madmen by a generation that has been led to believe that “the system” is out to get them, however one defines “the system.” This procedure is typically carried out without the requisite aid of historical context. The regular production of such “history” has effectively dulled the senses of many, such that any dark discovery from the past (whether real or imagined) is now the new, expected, daily norm. Within such a pessimistic environment as this, it becomes much more difficult to offer careful and nuanced analyses of history without sounding like an advocate of archaic thinking; especially when your presentation of history doesn’t square with what is deemed as vogue at the time. As this relates to Watts, I would suggest that a more careful analysis of the world in which he lived would help us understand his struggles over the use of creeds in explaining the Trinity (to which Aniol alluded). In Watts’ day, there were some who placed a stilted emphasis on historic creeds, thereby adding fodder to non-conformists who were concerned about retaining fidelity to Scripture. These pendulum swings have existed throughout church history, and they offer an important context to our comprehension of the various contests that arise in the church, past and present. In the end, neither celebritism nor unjust deconstructionism will help us in our pursuit of history. Instead, we are to seek out what facts are available to us objectively, without the intent of buttressing or demonizing those whom we evaluate, all the while heralding the authority and glory of Christ above all that is evaluated.

3. Church History is Fallible History: If you want infallible history, read your Bible. Everything else is subject to serious scrutiny with varying degrees of uncertainty. We often speak with such certitude about the saints of yesteryear, and yet this often belies the extent of our actual knowledge. By contrast, even the people we know personally we can only know within the context of our human frailty and personal limitations. As for individuals from the past, whom we have never met, all we can say is that we know of them by means of various historic texts that are available. Moreover, not everyone’s recorded history is necessarily as robust as we would prefer. In all of this we are left with an important principle as it relates to assessing the lives of historic figures: First, we must remember that “…the Lord knows who are His…” (2 Timothy 2:9) in a manner that we cannot. We cannot claim to know people (spiritually or otherwise) to the degree that Lord knows them, and thus we should be guarded with humility when seeking to describe the spiritual condition of others. Second, we are enjoined not to “exceed that which is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6) in Scripture, and such wisdom has its application in the use of extra-biblical history. We humans are often tempted to fill in the blanks of what is not plainly revealed (whether in Scripture or otherwise) because we don’t like having unanswered questions. Yet the plain reality of life is this: God knows all things, and we do not. Such an obvious confession isn’t always easy to make, especially when we pridefully think we are on the cusp of connecting the dots between two unknowns. Like many things in life, our observation of church history must never exceed the written record of it, remembering that such history is fallible and subject to scrutiny itself. Wherever we find uncertainty in life (whether in Scripture or otherwise), we can leave the matter in the hands of God who fully knows all things and will reveal all things in the end.

For most years of my life in pastoral ministry, to varying degrees, I have actively been involved in leading music before God’s people. It is a most serious task which must uphold and buttress the ministry of the word and prayer when the saints assemble for worship. As I contemplate these priorities, I often find that there are songs in our hymnal that are worthy of enthusiastic promotion, while others are used minimally or not at all. There are also hymns that are generally sound, but might require a simple redaction or modification. Some hymn stories, regarding the hymn and the hymn writer, may be encouraging and uplifting for the flock; whereas others are best left alone. And as for Harry Emmerson Fosdick’s hymn, God of Grace and God of Glory (The Christian Life Hymnal, #337), I refuse to sing it in view his horrific mockery of Scripture and the glorious Godhead. These are the choices that fallible men must make when sorting through a fallible hymnal, written by fallible people. There will always be choices to make regarding a hymnody which exalts the Lord most, seeing that it is our calling to give Him those gifts of praise (Hebrews 13:15) which honor and magnify our great God.

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