There are several theological problems with Watts’ views. Three of the more serious ones are his dispensationalism, his view of Scripture, and his views on the Trinity. As Bushell states it,
“It goes almost without saying that Watts’ attitude towards the Old Testament permeates his hymns and Psalm imitations. This consideration, coupled with the fact that Watts’ views on the Trinity were highly suspect, and the fact that some modern day dispensationalists trace their views back to him, ought to cause even judicious hymn singers to question the propriety of approaching the throne of God with the words of Isaac Watts on their lips.”1
We will deal with the issue of Watts’ Unitarianism in the section on Watts’ Unitarianism. His dispensationalism is repeatedly and emphatically manifested in his own statements. As Pollard documents it,
“Like some of his predecessors, Watts published his own version of The Psalms of David (1719), but in his case with an important difference indicated by the following words of the title ‘Imitated in the Language of the New Testament’. In the preface he wrote:
For why should I now address God my Saviour in a song, with Burnt Sacrifices of Fatlings, and with the Incense of Rams? Why should I pray to be sprinkled with Hysop, or recur to the Blood of Bullocks and Goats?…Where the Psalmist has described Religion by fear of God, I have joined Faith and love to it.”
“He denied in particular that the Book of Psalms was a canonical hymn book for the New Testament Church, or adapted to its use. It was a Jewish book rather than a Christian book. In Christian praise the gospel teaching must be supreme over that of the Old Testament psalms, some of which are even contrary to the spirit of the gospel.”
Watts is so blind that he cannot see Christ in all the types and shadows of the old covenant. He sees only the works of the law and a religion of fear. Scofield, who stated that at Sinai Israel exchanged grace for law, would heartily concur. Heretical sects and erring Christians are very good at claiming, and frequently with sound basis, members of the pantheon of orthodoxy as their own. Small wonder then that modern dispensationalists trace their lineage back not only to Scofield and Darby, but on to Watts himself.
Watts’ extreme dispensational views are amply demonstrated by the way he adapted the Davidic Psalms to the “new dispensation.”
“In his endeavor to bring David up to date, Watts furthermore changed the psalms in order to harmonize them with prevailing economic attitudes of the eighteenth century. Where the psalmist had scored usury, Watts thought it necessary also to leave out the mention of usury, which though politically forbidden by the ,Jews among themselves was never unlawful to the Gentles, nor to any Christians since the ,Jewish polity expired. “Watts, tactfully omitted the mention of those ‘temporal’ blessings which the royal psalmist repeatedly promised the righteous, because as he expressed it, he believed in discouraging a too confident expectation of these temporal things, . . . the positive blessings of long life, health, recovery, and security in the midst of dangers . . . so much promised in the Old Testament, and so little in the New. “The happy land of Canaan in Watts’s ‘Imitations’ becomes the British Isles. After omitting the Davidic promises of such personal blessings as long life, health, recovery, and security amidst dangers, because these promises do not appear in the New Testament, he then magnified stray hints of Canaan’s blessings into huge prophecies of Britain’s future greatness. His version of Psalm LXVII contained, for instance, the following lines:
Shine, mighty God, on Britain shine…
God the Redeemer scatters round His choicest favors here…
Sing loud with solemn voice,
While British tongues exalt his praise,
And British hearts rejoice!”
“He changed Psalm LXXV into a series of Anti-Jacobite invectives.” The title read: “Power and government from God alone, Applied to the Glorious Revolution by King William, or the happy accession of King George to the throne.” In another place he called King George II a “royal saint,” and saluted him with the couplet:
‘Tis George the Blest remounts the throne,
With double vigor in his son.
“Watts, in a version of Psalm C, wrote this stanza:
Sing to the Lord with joyful voice
Let every land his name adore;
The British Isles shall send the noise
Across the ocean to the shore . . . .
And Psalm CXLVII elaborated reasons for praising and trusting the Lord
O Britain, praise thy mighty God ….
He bid the ocean round thee flow;
No bars of brass could guard thee so.
Not content with justifying the ways of God to the British in England alone, Watts found a new title for the last part of Psalm CVII: “Colonies planted; or Nations blest and punish’d; A Psalm for New Eng land.” Two stanzas give an idea of the author’s manner in this compliment to the New World:
Where nothing dwelt but beasts of prey,
Or men as fierce and wild as they,
He bids th’oprest and poor repair,
And builds them towns and cities there.
Thus they are blest; but if they sin,
He lets the heathen nations in,
A savage crew invades their lands,
Their princes die by barb’rous hands.4
The historic fact is that no infidel higher critic and no rationalistic textual critic has presumed to take such extensive liberties with the word of God as Watts presumed to do in the guise of “Christianizing the Psalms.”5
Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, Crown and Covenant Publications, 1980, p.155. ↩
Arthur Pollard, English Hymns, Longmans, Green & Co., 1960, p. 13. ↩
H. B. Marks, The Rise and Growth of English Hymnody, Fleming H. Revell, 1938, p. 96. ↩
R. M. Stevenson, Patterns of Protestant Church Music, Duke University Press, 1953, p. 96-99. ↩
See also Arthur Paul Davis, Isaac Watts, His Life and Works, The Dryden Press, 1943, p. 199. Davis, noting Watts attempts to “Christianize” the Psalms states, “He omitted whole Psalms that did not lend themselves to his Christian purpose; he left out parts of others. Evangelical and New Testament themes were introduced in the place of the ‘dark sayings’ of David. He changed the names of Judah and Israel to England and Scotland and the names of Jewish kings to those of Great Britain.” ↩