Isaac Watts: The Calvinist

from May 26, 2014 Category: Articles

As a biblically informed theologian and preacher, Isaac Watts found his mind and imagination drawn to meditation on the infinity of the God who, by His power and authority, laid out and sustained the heavens and the entire universe. Describing Watts’ fascination with the immensity of the sky and heavens, Manning wrote, “In Watts it leads straight to the Calvinist’s awareness of the sovereignty of God.” Watts winsomely wove this awareness of God’s sovereignty in all areas—including salvation—throughout his hymns, as summarized here in a quatrain:

The sovereign will of God alone
Creates us heirs of grace,
Born in the image of His Son,
A new, peculiar race

Watts spoke of God’s sovereignty when he wrote of his plans to introduce new poetry into the sung worship of the church: “Leave a man, leave a church free to worship and to wonder at the almighty power and grace of God.” Commenting on this, Erik Routley wrote that Watts “was [a] Calvinist. The quality which is common to all Watts’ work, is this wonder, which is the essence of John Calvin’s message.”

Hymnologist Albert Bailey reluctantly admitted, “Watts’ hymns are rhymed theology, and the theology is derived from John Calvin, who in turn got his basic ideas from Augustine and Paul.” Bailey, a theological liberal, despised the Calvinism of Nonconformists, Puritans, and Presbyterians: “This religion is nothing short of dreadful. It outrages our sense of justice, contradicts our reason, makes God a monster, Christ a play-actor in the tragedy of human history, and robs man of his freedom without which a moral life is impossible.” Hence, it is no surprise that Bailey was bewildered by lines like these:

May not the sovereign Lord on high
Dispense his favors as he will;
Choose some to life while others die,
And yet be just and gracious still?

Bailey’s answer was that God could not choose some to salvation and be just and gracious still. Yet he seemed, nevertheless, to have been enamored with Watts as a hymn writer, and went so far as to claim that Watts “admirably” fulfills Milton’s description of the finest poetry as “simple, sensual, and passionate.” At last, theological skeptic that he was, Bailey was forced to conclude that with Watts, “Even the cold logic of Calvinism catches fire.”

For Watts, there was no “cold logic” to Calvinism. Calvinism was merely the theological name that had attached itself to the biblical truths that filled Watts with wonder, love, and gratitude at the immensity of free grace set upon unworthy sinners before the foundation of the world and accomplished and applied by Jesus Christ through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit regenerating the hearts of the unworthy elect. Watts believed Calvinism was worth singing about because it was the theological glue that gave glory to the grace of God in Christ for the salvation of sinners.

This excerpt is from Douglas Bond’s The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts.