Barry W. Hamilton, The Role of Richard Watson's Theological Institutes in the Development of Methodism After John Wesley. Edwin Mellen Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-7734-0072-6 415 pages
Dr. Vic Reasoner
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Volume 32. Fall 2014.
This is not a biography on Richard Watson nor is it a summary of his systematic theology. Rather, it is an overview of the period following Wesley's death and an analysis of what motivated Watson to write the first Methodist systematic theology.
Watson himself was converted from Calvinism and his theology became the standard textbook for the next fifty years. And the Methodist theologians who followed Watson, such as Samuel Wakefield and Thomas Ralston, were heavily influenced by Watson.
While there is no substitute for reading the primary material, often we read it without understanding the context in which it was written. While I have read Watson's Institutes, I confess that I did not know most of what Hamilton has uncovered.
After the death of John Wesley the attacks on Methodism resumed. Faced with empty pews and waning influence, the cry of the Anglican clergy was that the church is in danger. They believed they were threatened by Methodism. Actually their real danger was from deism and rationalism. The doctrine of the Trinity was especially under attack.
And so Watson produced an apology for Methodist which defined Methodism as apostolic Christianity. He upheld an Athanasian Trinitarianism. While he never used the terms Methodist or Wesleyan in the Institutes, he demonstrated that Methodism was in line with moderate Anglicanism, following Richard Hooker. At that point in history, "latitudinarianism" was a low church position which believed that human reason when combined with the illumination of the Holy Spirit was a sufficient guide for determining doctrinal truth.
Hamilton explained, "If Watson had elevated Wesley to a place of prominence in the Institutes, Methodism's enemies would have redoubled their efforts to discredit the movement." By quoting these sources, instead of Wesley and Fletcher, "After their publication, no one could attack Methodism without simultaneously threatening the doctrines of the Established Church." Watson produced a type of Protestant scholasticism in which propositional truth was the central concern.
Richard Watson was foremost a preacher. He left the Methodists for eleven years to serve in the Methodist New Connection. It was at the urging of Jabez Bunting that Watson returned to the main Methodist body. Hamilton suggests that Watson may have also written for self-vindication, feeling that he had made a mistake. Second-generation British Methodists in general, and Bunting in particular, resisted democracy within the main body. Every Methodist sympathetic with democratic reform was eradicated from Methodism. They wanted to establish Methodism as loyal Tories, not as radical republicans. They feared that if they adopted a more democratic polity this could result in democratically determined theology.
Against this backdrop, Adam Clarke had an inflated view of human reason. While this did not lead him personally into error, he did take the position that the term "Son of God" applies to Jesus Christ after the Incarnation. Fearful that this interpretation would open the door to Socianism and rationalism, Watson wrote Remarks on the Eternal Sonship of Christ; and the Use of Reason in Matters of Revelation: Suggested by Several Passages in Dr. Adam Clarke's Commentary on the New Testament in 1818.
Watson insisted that revelation must supercede reason. Hamilton devotes an entire chapter to explain this controversy. By 1827 the Methodist Conference passed a resolution requiring every candidate for ordination to affirm the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ. Probably at the insistence of Bunting, Watson wrote his theology since the Methodists could not afford a seminary at the time. While Clarke was not heretical in his position, the Methodist leadership was fearful that his emphasis on reason would open the door to liberalism. And some Methodist preachers did adopt heretical positions, as Hamilton documents.
Watson provided a collection of evidence that God has given a revelation, an exhaustive exposition of the doctrines of Scripture, a Protestant theology of the sacraments, and an extensive section on the doctrine of the church which upheld the pastoral office as a stronghold of spiritual supervision.
In 2010 Dr. Hamilton wrote to me,
I have been working on a monograph that examines Watson's Institutes for more than seven years. I am determined to give Watson an honored remembrance as Methodism's first and greatest systematic theologian, still unsurpassed. Richard Watson appears to be the most overlooked, neglected Methodist theologian in historical studies. It took me several years of research to figure out the strategic importance of Watson's contributions, and they are indeed monumental. Methodism owes a great deal to Mr. Watson, far more than current Wesleyan scholarship thinks. I have the impression that many Wesleyan scholars today are not interested in Mr. Watson and his Institutes. They call them "boring" and "scholastic." Of course Watson's contemporaries pointed out the need for judicious editing in their reviews. But Watson was trying to create a course of study for Wesleyan ministers who did their library research on horseback. He was also seriously ill and in tremendous pain before his untimely death at age 51. Mr. Watson fully deserved his final resting place beside Mr. Wesley, in spite of his enemies who found fault with this. My forthcoming book aims to restore Mr. Watson to an honored remembrance, the "Chrysostom of Wesleyan Methodism."
While I would complain that his index is inadequate, I want to congratulate Dr. Hamilton on this groundbreaking achievement.