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Reformed Literature
A Presbyterian Internet Journal

Archaic or Accurate

Ed. John Thackway

Published by Bible League

Online PDF version

This booklet is sadly beginning to go out of print, I would suggest that readers request one directly from Rev. John Thackway while they are still available. Although, I have also added a link to an online version so if you are happy with your own printed version then just click on the link at the right.

The booklet is not written by Rev. Thackway, instead he is the editor of a series of articles from a range of authors on the use of the word YOU or the use of the words THEE/THOU/THINE in Scripture. The authors range from the former general secretary of the TBS to Iain H. Murray. This is quite simply one of the best short explanations of the position of the FP Church and Reformed Evangelical Christianity for the retention of the traditional form of addressing the Most High God.

The more I travel in broader ‘Reformed’ circles the more aware I am of the rapidly reducing numbers of people who retain to the traditional forms of address, therefore, it is important – whatever your own practice that you consider what this booklet has to say.

Clearly, language changes… the uses of words alter and this is not a moral thing it is just the way that it is… this often the basis for the argument against THEE/THOU/THINE. Christians who have altered their practice in prayer have done so as they think that language has now altered so that we simply use the word YOU instead of these old forms. They could argue that those who cling onto them are simply being outdated and outmoded – that we are trying to keep hold of an Archaic form of expression that sounds unnatural.

Similarly, there are Christians that would say that the words, THEE/THOU/THINE are a much more reverent form of address and ought to be retained. It should be said at the outset of this review that the first article distances itself from this line of approach. Reverence in prayer is fundamentally found in the heart of the Christian offering the prayer, the unstructured and ill-expressed prayer of a new uneducated Christian is much more reverent in the sight of the Lord than the highly structured beautiful cadences of some Bishop that doesn’t believe a word of what he is saying. It is possible to use the word YOU and be reverent, and the words THEE and THOU and not be reverent. However, (and this is an important however) YOU is more colloquial in its usage and a Christian does want to be reverent when prayer, therefore, a more accurate, elegant and older form of address can aid the person in praying in a more reverent fashion. The use of THEE/THOU/THINE is now fairly distinctive within contemporary English culture and it does sound more grandly traditional, elevated and hallowed and this is a reason why we may wish to retain its use. However, as the booklet makes clear the primary reason for the retention of the traditional form is accuracy – it gives accuracy to the Word of God and it gives accuracy in our prayers… that is lost when you use the colloquial catch-all term of YOU or YOURS.

The first article outlines the different pronouns for address – from I, we, thou, ye, he/she, they etc.. Clearly, the way something is addressed lets you understand who is being spoken about. There are many times that this is important.. for example, Luke 24:5 ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead?’ means Why seek ye the living one among the dead ones as the adjective is plural with a singular participle. Where ‘God is not a God of the dead, but of the living’ (Matt 22:32) has both words plural.

A different example from 2 Samuel 7:23 – ‘And what one nation in the earth is like thy people, even like Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to himself, and to make him a name, and do for you great things and terrible, for thy land, before thy people, which thou redeemedst to thee from Egypt’…. Look at the different thee, thou, you, he, him etc… in that verse and how it would be much more difficult to understand if all were simply reduced to a catch-all… David is in prayer to God, so we have the thy and the thou. He also speaks about God, so we have him, himself and God and then he speaks about the people with the use of the word you. This change of style and focus in prayer is lost if we just use the word, you…

A final example from Titus 3:15 – ‘All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.’. Again we have the use of the word you and the word thee… and again the differences in the text are lost if we convert it all to a simple you. The singular is referring to Titus and the ‘you’ refers to the church in Crete.

The pamphlet gives many more examples and argues much more persuasively than I have done. At the end of it you are left with the question, why is the contemporary church turning its back on the proper use of thee and thou. Retaining the traditional forms of address is not some flat earth approach seeking to hold on to the way that something has always been done, it is simply the accurate way to address the Lord in prayer and it allows English speakers to differentiate meanings in way that is hard to do otherwise.

Terence Brown (formerly of the TBS) argues that when you translate a book from one language to another then you should try to use all the features of the new language. If we were writing a new translation for an African tribal language and we found that when they spoke about God they used a distinctive form of speech that seemed more reverential, so that it sounded more appropriate in its tone, the translators would not disregard this feature but would make good use of it.