Isaac Watts and the Liturgical Fidget
As the church flounders about in the “liturgical fidget” (term borrowed from CS Lewis's Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer), Isaac Watts can give us both the theological and liturgical ballast Christian worship so desperately needs (what I here argue for Isaac Watts can be said about many of the luminaries of Church history and hymnody). And he can give us an emotional rudder, a means of steering the passions in worship by objective propositional truth feelingly delivered. Without such a rudder, worship is shipwrecked on the shoals of cheap-trick emotionalism generated in much the same way it is at a concert or a football game. Tragically, in place of singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in worship to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16–17), raw feelings of having done so may be supplanting the real thing.
Watts was around nearly three hundred years before Little Richard said, “The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock ‘n’ roll.”[i] But he understood important things about how human beings are wired, things Little Richard and his offspring understand, but which are suppressed or ignored by many in the church today. Watts understood that “our passions are intensely directed toward material things but are hardly moved by the most important discoveries of faith.” He was warring against the stale lifeless singing in worship in his youth, and he rightly wanted to see emotion and passion, as we do, in sung worship. He knew that passions “are glorious and noble instruments of the spiritual life when under good conduct.”
But here is where Watts is a counter voice to many well-meaning worship leaders today; he knew that passions “are ungovernable and mischievous energies when they go astray.”[ii] He grasped—and so must we—that it is the business of church leaders both “to assist the devout emotions” and “to guard against the abuse of them.” Centuries before the invention of the electric bass, Watts warned church leaders: “Let him not begin with their emotions. He must not artfully manipulate” their passions and feelings until he has first “set these doctrines before the eye of their understanding and reasoning faculties. The emotions are neither the guides to truth nor the judges of it.” He argued that since “light comes before heat . . . Christians are best prepared for the useful and pious exercise of their emotions in the spiritual life who have laid the foundations in an ordered knowledge of the things of God.”[iii]
FIRST LIGHT THEN HEAT In the very best of Watts’ hymns, he combines both emotion and knowledge. But for Watts, it is always light first, then heat. The feeling of wonder, the emotion of profound gratitude, the escalating thrill of adoration and praise always follow the objective propositional exploration of the doctrines of the gospel. For Watts, the doxological always followed the theological. And the foundation of ordered knowledge of the things of God that must precede true doxology is essential for all Christians, men and women, rich and poor, in all times and in all places, those with PhDs or GEDs, men from every tribe, kindred, people, and language. We know this not because Watts said so. Watts discovered it from divine revelation. Hebrew poetry in the Bible can be deeply passionate, even erotic, and the Psalms are rich with thrilling emotion, but it is always light first, then heat. Surely this is what the apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote, “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15b). FEAST OF DEVOTION The best way to discover this, however, is not by reading Watts’ prose arguments. Read and sing his hymns. A generation of Christians that returns to Watts’ feast of devotion spread before us in his hymns will find celebratory nourishment for both mind and spirit. Watts’ grasp of doctrinal truth about Christ and the atonement will become our grasp. His determination to take every thought captive to Christ will become our determination. His love for children and the poor will become our love. His passion for the lost will become our passion. His thrill at the forgiveness of sins will become our thrill. His praise will become our praise. His awe will become our awe. His wonder at Christ’s saving love for sinners will become our wonder. All who long for Christ, for being like Him, for adoring Him, for serving Him, for sharing His grace with the world, will find in Watts a treasure trove of experiential doctrine, richly adorning biblical truth that leads to the most thrilling passion for Christ. CHEAT OF DEVOTION What about a Christian culture that abandons Watts? We should expect to continue to be cheated by raw emotion masquerading as spiritual light. I for one do not want for an instant to be thrilled with emotion, to become a junkie of my feelings, to be enslaved to raw passion—and tell myself it’s Christ with which I’m thrilled. I don’t want a cheat. I want Christ. I want to examine from every angle the wondrous cross on which my Savior willingly gave up His perfect life for my miserable, unworthy one. I want to see His head, His hands, His feet, the blood and water of His sorrow and love flow mingling down, washing me clean from my guilt and corruption. I want to survey with wonder a love so amazing and so divine. Then, and only then, I want to be carried away, dazzled beyond words, with Jesus my atoning sacrifice, my gracious Substitute, my perfect righteousness. SURVEY THE WONDER By the gracious gifting of Jesus, Watts was given a gift of timeless poetic wonder. It was a unique genius. We cannot have it; it was Watts’ gift. But it was a gift given for the edification of the church until we reach that “land of pure delight.” By it, every generation of God’s children can take Watts’ words as their own. By his poetic devotion, every Christian can share in his wonder at Christ and the glories of the world to come.
When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ my God: All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down: Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Douglas Bond is author of more than thirty books of historical fiction, practical theology, and biography, including The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts (Reformation Trust, 2014) from which this blog post is adapted, God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To), and the Mr. Pipes Series on hymnody for children and young adults. In addition to speaking at conferences and leading Church history tours, Bond is also lyricist of New Reformation Hymns and the Rise & Worship album (2017); books and cds are available at bondbooks.net, and you are invited to follow his podcast The Scriptorium at bondbooks.net