Essay / Theology

Watts Pleads with the Trinity

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Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is demonstrably a trinitarian, but he felt a tremendous tension over the doctrine. In his time there had been considerable debate about whether this hard doctrine was truly scriptural (for a blow-by-blow account of trinitarian fights in English in the seventeenth century, see Philip Dixon’s book Nice and Hot Disputes). Watts was as submissive to scriptural revelation as anyone, but was deeply troubled about what doctrine he was being asked to submit his understanding to:

“Dear and blessed God, hadst thou been pleased, in any one plain scripture, to have informed me which of the different opinions about holy Trinity, among the contending parties of Christians, had been true, thou knowest with how much real satisfaction and joy, my unbiased heart would have opened itself to receive and embrace the divine discovery.”

If only God had shown “plainly, in any single text, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are three real distinct persons” in one divine nature, Watts says, “I had never suffered myself to be bewildered in so many doubts, nor embarrassed with so many strong fears of assenting to the mere inventions of men, instead of divine doctrine; but I should have humbly and immediately accepted thy words, so far as it was possible for me to understand them, as the only rule of my faith.”

Nowhere in his impassioned prayer does Watts give the impression that he is grappling with a mystery of salvation; his angst all stems from the situation of being faced with a doctrine lacking the kind of direct biblical support which would bind it on his conscience as an article of faith, and its sheer intellectual difficulty. “How can such weak creatures ever take in so strange, so difficult, and so abstruse a doctrine as this?”

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