Isaac Watts wrote nearly 600 hymns in the 18th Century. Churches around the world still sing many today. For instance, if you visited a congregation on any given Sunday in the English speaking world, it would not be a surprise for you to hear believers singing one the following hymns penned by the father of modern hymnody:
Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed
Give to Our God Immortal Praise
How Sweet and Awesome is the Place
I Sing th' Almighty Power of God
Jesus Shall Reign Where'er the Sun
Joy to the World! the Lord is Come!
Our God, our Help in Ages Past
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Watts was much loved in his own day, as he is today, for his labors as the father of modern hymnody. Jonathan Edwards has noted that his congregation in Northhampton sang more Watts' hymns than they sang Psalms.(1) Watts' hymns were and are much beloved on account of the poetical beauty with which Watts frame his theological expositions.
Watts was not, however, immune to theological controversy. After his death, certain Unitarian theologians claimed that Watts' had cast off his earlier Trinitarianism and had embraced Unitarianism.(2) Additionally, both Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge strongly criticized Watts' Christological proposal concerning the pre-existence of the human soul of Christ.
Watts' writings on the Trinity and on the person of Christ certainly opened the door for confusion about the precise theological convictions that he held. For instance, in his 1722 publication, The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity, Watts wrote the following:
"I infer that it can never be necessary to salvation to know the precise way and manner how one God subsists in three personal agents, or how these three persons are one God."
He did then nuance this statement, when he stated, "It is our duty to believe the general doctrine of the Trinity."
Underlying Watt's writings on the Trinity and on Christology were debates raging in England. The Socinians, Arians and Unitarians were all surfacing under the influence of false teachers coming out from orthodox Christian circles. One of Watts' 19th Century biographers, Thomas Milner, explained the background of the Trinitarian controversy in which Watts was engaged when he wrote,
"An eventful period now arrived in the history of protestant dissenters, the year 1719, in which the conference at Salter's Hall was held upon the Exeter trinitarian controversy. This unhappy dispute engaged the attention of the London ministers: to maintain the peace of the western churches was the ostensible object of their meeting; but principles were covertly propagated in the contest, which have proved destructive to most of the presbyterian congregations, at that time the pride and glory of nonconformity...At the period of the Salter's-Hall debates, Mr. Watts's opinions upon the Trinity coincided with those now entertained by the orthodox; but he was hurt by the divisions and strife he witnessed, and his love for peace led him to endeavour to conciliate the disputants by attempting a new explication of the doctrine. Here was his error: he sought to discover the modus of the divine nature, which to finite minds is inexplicable; and, as the inevitable consequence, he plunged into a labyrinth, and became at every step the more involved in uncertainty and doubt."(3)
Watts' disposition led him away from sharp conflict. He was, at heart, a peacemaker. This, no doubt, affected both his tone and his approach to the doctrine of the Trinity and to his Christology. Watts wanted to exercise charity toward those who were "on the fence," while not refusing to take a firm stand for the truth. In turn, he certainly came to err on some of his own proposals.
One of the most interesting developments in the theological controversies of Watts' day was his formulation on the person of Christ in relation to the other members of the Godhead. While seeking to refute the Socinian heresy that had made inroads in his day, Watts offered a new way to approach the subordination language of the Son in Scripture. It is clear that the Scriptures teach that the Son is in every way equal to the Father; and, it is clear that the Scriptures teach that according to his human nature, the Son was "for a little while made lower than the angels." The teaching of Scripture on these matters has most commonly been resolved by orthodox divines by distinguishing between the ad intra/ad extra distinction--as well as by the classification of the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity. Rather than simply adopting these categorizations, Watts developed his own explanation.
In proposition 5, in his book The Glory of Christ as the God-Man, he wrote,
"Whatsoever Scriptures represent Christ as existent before his incarnation in a nature inferior to Godhead do most naturally lead us to the belief of the pre-existence of his human soul.
If there be any such Scriptures they must refer either to the human soul of Christ (which was afterward united to his human body, or to some other super-Angelic nature, as some call it, which might belong to our Savior, besides his human soul."(4)
In response to Watts' teaching and the widespread confusion caused by it (many suggesting that Watts had given too much leeway to the Socinian heresy in this proposal), Edwards took to a fairly lengthy 13 point refutation of "Dr. Watts' scheme," as he called it. In his Miscellanies entry 1174, Edwards wrote,
"Reasons against Dr. Watts' notion of the Pre-existence of Christ's Human Soul.
1. God's manner with all creatures is to appoint them a trial before he admits them to glory and confirmed happiness. And especially may this be expected before such honor and glory as the creating [of] the world and other things which Dr. Watts ascribes to this human soul.
2. If the pre-existing soul of Christ created the world, then doubtless it upholds and governs it. The same Son of God that did one, does the other. He created all things, and by him all things consist. And, if so, how was his dominion confined to the Jewish nation before his Incarnation, but extends to all nations since? Besides, there are many things ascribed in the Old Testament to the Son of God, in those very places which Dr. Watts himself supposes to speak of him, that imply his government of the whole world, all nations--the same person that is spoken of as King of Israel.
3. According to this scheme, the greatest of the works of the Son in his created nature, implying the greatest exaltation, [was] his first work of all, viz. his creating all things, all worlds, all things visible and invisible, whether they be thrones and dominions, principalities or powers--or at least before ever he had any trial at all of his obedience, etc. At least this work seems much greater than judging the world at the last day, which the Scripture often speaks of as one of the highest parts of his exaltation, which he has in reward for his obedience and sufferings. And Dr. Watts himself supposes his honors since his humiliation to be much greater than before.
4. The Scripture represents the visible dominion of Christ over the world as a complex person, or sitting at the right hand of God and governing the world as the Father's vicegerent, as a new thing after his ascension. But by Dr. Watts' scheme it cannot be so.
5. Satan or Lucifer, before his fall, was the morning star, the covering cherub, the highest and brightest of all creatures.
6. On this scheme it will follow that the covenant of redemption was made with a person that was not sui juris, and not at liberty to act his own mere good pleasure with respect to undertaking to die for sinners, but was obliged to comply on the first intimation that it would be well-pleasing to God and what he chose.
7. According to that scheme, the man Christ Jesus was not properly the son of the virgin and so the Son of Man. To be the son of a woman is to receive being in both soul and body in a consequence of a conception in her womb. The soul is the principal part of the man, and sonship implies derivation of the soul as well as the body by conception. Not that the soul is a part of the mother as the body is. Though the soul is no part of the mother and be immediately given by God, yet that hinders not its being derived by conception, it being consequent on it according to a law of nature. 'Tis agreeable to a law of nature that, where a perfect human body is conceived in the womb of a woman and properly nourished and increased, a human soul should come into being. And conception may as properly be the cause whence it is derived as many other natural effects are derived from natural causes or antecedents. For 'tis the power of God [that] produces these effects, though it be according to an established law. The soul being so much the principal part of man, a derivation of the soul by conception is the chief thing implied in a man's being the son of a woman.
8. According to what seems to be Dr. Watts' scheme, the Son of God is no distinct divine person from the Father. So far as he is a divine person, he is the same person with the Father. So that in the covenant of redemption the Father covenants with himself, and he takes satisfaction of himself, etc., unless you will say that one nature covenanted with another, the two natures in the same person covenanted together, and one nature in the same person took satisfaction of the other nature in the same person. But how does this confound our minds instead of helping our ideas and make them more easy and intelligible.
9. The Son of God, as a distinct person, was from eternity. 'Tis said, Mic. 5:2, "his goings forth were of old, from everlasting." So Prov. 8:23, "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was." So he is called, Is. 9:6, "The everlasting Father." I know of no expressions used in Scripture more strong to signify the eternity of the Father himself.
10. Dr. Watts supposes the world to be made by this pre-existent soul of Christ, and thinks it may properly be so said, though the knowledge and power of this pre-existent soul could not extend to the most minute parts, every atom, etc. But 'tis evidently the design of the Scriptures to assure us that Christ made all things whatever in the absolute universality. John 1:3, "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." Col. 1:16-17, "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist." Now if we suppose matter to be infinitely divisible, it will follow that, let his wisdom and power be as great as they will, if finite, but a few of those individual things that are made were the effects of his power and wisdom; yea, that the number of the things that were made by him are so few that they bear no proportion to others that did not immediately fall under his notice; or that of the things that are made, there are ten thousands times, yea, infinitely more not made by him than are made by himself, and so but infinitely few of their circumstances are ordered by his wisdom.
11. 'Tis said, Heb. 2:8, "Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him." Here 'tis represented that God the Father has put every individual thing under the power and government of another person distinct from himself. But this can't be true of the human soul of Christ, as it must be, according to Dr. Watts' scheme, let the powers of that be never so great, if they are not infinite. For things and circumstances and dependencies and consequences of things in the world are infinite in number and, therefore, a finite understanding and power cannot extend to them. Yea, it can extend to but an infinitely small part of the whole number of individuals and their circumstances and consequences. Indeed, in order to the disposing of a few things, in their motions and successive changes, to a certain precise issue, there is need of infinite exactness, and so need of infinite power and wisdom.
12. The work of creation, and so the work of upholding all things in being, can in no sense be properly said to be the work of any created nature. If the created nature gives forth the word, as Joshua did when he said "Sun, stand thou still" [Josh. 10:12], still is not that created nature that does it. That being that depends himself on creating power don't properly do anything towards creation, as Joshua did nothing towards stopping the sun in his course. So that it cannot be true in Dr. Watts' scheme that that Son of God, who is a distinct person from God the Father, did at all, in any manner of propriety, create the world, nor does he uphold it or govern it. Nor can those things that Christ often says of himself be true, as, "The Father worketh hitherto, and I work"; "Whatsoever the Father doeth, those doeth the Son likewise" (John 5:17, 19). 'Tis very evident that the works of creating and upholding and governing the world are ascribed to the Son, as a distinct person from the Father.
13. 'Tis one benefit or privilege of the person of Christ, when spoken of as distinct from the Father, to have the Spirit of God under him, to be at his disposal and to be his messenger, which is infinitely too much for any creature. John 15:26 and 16:7, 13-14; Acts 2:33."(5)
There are a few important take-aways for us from Edwards' refutation of Watts' Christological proposal. First, Edwards treated the subject with the gravity it deserved. He did not shy away from bringing the strongest refutation of Watts' novel proposal. Second, he did not deal with Watts in a overly ostracizing manner. Edwards continued to sing Watts' hymns in Northhamption. Furthermore, he spoke in many other places in his Works with gratitude for much of what Watts had written and done for the good of the church. Edwards tempered the need to bring strong correction to serious theological error with an appropriate manifestation of Christian love and gratitude for the gifts of his brother in Christ.
Though we praise God for raising up Isaac Watts to fill our hymnbooks with some of the greatest hymns the saints will ever sing in this life, we must readily acknowledge--as did Edwards--the serious errors he proposed in his attempt to reconcile those with differing theological leanings. Watts' Christological scheme is a prime example of the deep waters of theological error into which we may wade if we are discontent with the otherwise convincing Trinitarian and Christological categorical distinctions that have been made from Nicea and Chalcedon to the post-Reformation scholastic era.
1. See Edwards May 22, 1744 Letter to Benjamin Coleman; Jonathan Edwards, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn and Harry S. Stout, vol. 16, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1998), 144-145.
2. Scott Aniol "Was Isaac Watts Unitarian? Athenasian Trinitarianism and the Boundaries of Christian Fellowship," Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 22 (2017): 91-103.
3. Thomas Milner The Life, Times and Correspondence of the Rev. Isaac Watts (London: Thomas Richardson and Son, 1845) pp. 320-321
4. Isaac Watts The Glory of Christ as God-Man (London: Printed for J. Oswald, 1746) p. 153
5. Jonathan Edwards, The "Miscellanies": (Entry Nos. 1153-1360), ed. Douglas A. Sweeney and Harry S. Stout, vol. 23, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2004), 89-92.