Address to God in Prayer

William Young


Young argues for addressing God with the language of ‘thou’ and ‘thee’.
From The Presbyterian Reformed Magazine, Summer, 1989.
HT: The Puritan Board


Even in conservative churches there is today a widespread practice of addressing God with the plural pronoun “you”.  This is the regular practice in contemporary translations (interpretations) of the Bible.  The New American Standard Version is a remarkable exception to this tendency.  While it has used the plural when mention is made of creatures, the singular is retained when God is addressed.  This fact provides an occasion to observe that two questions often confused ought to be distinguished (1) are the pronouns “Thou”, “Thy” and “Thee” always to be regarded as archaic and invariably to be replaced by “you” and “your” and (2) is the usage in question archaic when creatures are addressed?  The present article is chiefly concerned with the first of these questions.  A complete discussion of the usage in the Authorized Version and the Scottish Metrical Psalter would require the consideration of both of these questions.

The assumption commonly underlying the replacement of “Thou” by “you” in Bible translations is that the use of the singular is archaic while the plural is common usage today when a single individual is addressed.  The preface to the NIV states: “As for the traditional pronouns “Thou”, “Thee” and “Thine” in reference to the Deity, the translators judged that to use these archaisms would violate accuracy in translation.”  It is the NIV as well as the New American Standard that is inaccurate in translation.  When the same person or group is in Scripture addressed by a pronoun in one number and then by the other, the Authorized Version, but none of the contemporary versions, gives the exact reproduction of the original text.  Thus Ps. 32:9 “Be ye not as the horse … lest they come near unto thee”.  The NIV renders it “Do not be as the horse … or they will not come to you.”  The use of “you” rather than “thee” surely is not an instance of greater accuracy.  The next two sentences of the NIV preface exemplify the confusion of the two questions mentioned above.  The last of these sentences supposes that since everyday speech makes no distinction now when man is referred to, neither is or ought there to be any distinction with respect to God.  What is left out of account in this way of thinking is the distinction made perceptively by Prof. John Skilton between substituting current for archaic language on the one hand and secular for religious language on the other (Review of NIV New Testament in Westminster Theological Journal, Winter 1975, p. 262f.)

The identification of current usage with secular language is a confusion indicating a failure to understand the nature and function of language.  Language is often mistakenly viewed as a monolithic whole.  In fact a natural language like English is a combination of parts that may be quite unlike one another.  The words “sharp” and “flat” have a particular meaning in music, distinct from their sense in common conversation.  They are used to serve a special function of modifying the notes of a musical scale.  It would be absurd to attempt to reduce the language of music with its characteristic vocabulary to the limits of ordinary spoken English.  It is no less absurd in religion than in music.

It is a mistake, in the first place, in one’s conception of language, to suppose that the pronouns “thou” and “you” play an identical role in addressing the Almighty and in talking to a fellow mortal in the course of our secular employments.  Once this mistaken supposition is dissolved, there ceases to be any plausibility in concluding from the fact that individuals are regularly called “you,” that God is also to be addressed as “you”.  There simply is not a single rule for the use of “you” that applies univocally to both cases.  This principle with respect to language is implicit in the New King James Version, which throws a sop to reverence by capitalizing “You” in reference to God.  A solid grasp of the principle would have led the translators to realize that there was no valid linguistic ground for eliminating “Thou” from prayer in Biblical language.

In the second place, an even more serious factor making possible the use of “you” in addressing God is the widespread decay of reverence in worship, even in Evangelical and Reformed circles.  The shock felt by those who first encountered the use of you is an evidence of this.  To be sure, the initial instinctive revolt against an innovation felt to be blasphemous often wears off as one becomes accustomed to the practice.  This surely does not justify the practice any more than the searing of conscience by the habit of sinning excuses the transgression.  The practice of some to use “thou” and “you” indiscriminately scarcely savors of reverent awareness of the majesty of the One to whom prayer is directed.  Serious heed should be given to the words addressed to the wicked man in Ps 50:21; “thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself”.  False religion is marked by the vicious inclination to make gods in the image of man.  Superstition and idolatry are rooted in this tendency of the carnal mind.  This is not to sit in judgment as to the state of those who engage in the practice in question.  It is to observe that the practice which has swept into the professing church like a flood has roots that are unsound both from a linguistic and from a religious point of view.

It is sometimes said, “the change has taken place and we must adjust ourselves to it as to a fait accompli, even if we are unhappy about it.”  This is an invalid argument, if the change is a change for the worse.  The interests of Biblical religion are not advanced by the condoning of innovations that arise from the declension prevalent in the visible church and that tend to accelerate the downgrade movement.  Those who find themselves obliged to swim against the stream may do so with the confidence that the Head and King of the church is on the throne and will, in due season, vindicate the cause of truth.

Another argument sometimes heard is that people are not familiar with the verb forms that follow the pronoun “thou.”  This objection vanishes once one has become familiar not only with the language of the Authorized Version of the Bible and of the Scottish Psalter but even of other Bible translations and metrical versions of the Psalms prior to the last few decades.  There is a general assumption behind the argument to the effect that religious language is to be altered to suit the views and practices of certain classes of people.  This is not to be confused with the position of the Reformers that worship was to be conducted and the Bible to be translated into language which everyone could understand.  Addressing the Most High as “you” is not a use of language acceptable to all the people of God.  Simple Christians since the 18th century did not need to learn a new language in order to use “thou” correctly with appropriate verbal forms, but simply to extend their use of language to employ the language of Canaan when dealing with sacred matters.  To yield to the demand for “contemporary language” is to join with those who avowedly secularize religion.  An extreme form of this tendency is seen in the feminist demand for “inclusive language.”  When God can not be called “Father” or Christ “Son”, the change of language is a change of religion.  The change from “thee” and “thou” to “you” has paved the way for the elimination of “he”, “his” and “him” in religious language.  These actual and proposed changes are evidences of a false view of language at the root as well as of a low view of religion which is treated as subordinate to other considerations that are given the priority.  The same evil is evident when it is claimed that the words sung in praise to God are to be set to what is called “contemporary music”.  Here again man is made primary and God secondary.  Not what glorifies God, but what suits the desires and purposes of man is made determinative of worship.




Related Pages

All of the Writings of William Young Online