The Use of “Thee” and “Thou”
by K. L. Cooper (Wirral, England)
This article appeared in the ‘Assembly Testimony Magazine’, May/June 1997 edition. (www.AssemblyTestimony.org)
“Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein , and ye shall find rest for your souls ” Jer 6 16
“For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open unto their prayers ” 1 Pet 3 12
For some this is a contentious subject. There are many who still feel that the most appropriate way to address Divine Persons is to distinguish Them from all others by adopting the personal pronouns “Thee” and “Thou” which are no longer in common use in many parts of Britain. Regrettably, however, this is now a minority view, even amongst those gathered to the Lord’s name. Indeed in these days there are many who are not even aware that in addressing God as “You” they are causing much unhappiness to fellow saints.
This paper seeks to draw together some of the main lines of argument in support of the retention of the use of “Thee” and “Thou” in addressing the Lord. It does not purport to present any original lines of argument nor indeed attempt to be a technical exposition of the subject.
My Personal Conviction
Before undertaking a detailed study of this subject, I held strongly to the view that we should address the Lord using “Thee” and “Thou”. This view is held even more strongly now for the following reasons.
- A distinction should be maintained between addressing Divine Persons and addressing our fellow men. The use of distinctive pronouns allows for this.
- The discussion on this matter is not just about textual accuracy (although this is of course very important) but about reverence.
- There is generally these days an undue familiarity when speaking about and in addressing, the Lord. It is far better to use His full title “Lord Jesus Christ” rather than just using His human name “Jesus”. Every opportunity should be taken to show He is superlatively different whether by the name we use or the form of address.
Secular practice should not govern my approach to God, indeed quite the opposite, to use “Thee” and “Thou” is a positive act of non-conformity and would be recognised as out with the spirit of the age. Further the use of these pronouns is not just for public prayer but should be our exercise in private prayer as well.
What then should my attitude be to Christians who address the Lord as “You”? Firstly a distinction should be drawn between an uninstructed or young believer and one who should be more learned about these matters. I would not necessarily expect to hear one new to the Christian faith using “Thee” and “Thou” until they have been taught on the subject. It is very sad to hear an older Christian who once used “Thee etc ” speaking to the Lord in another way. This is often a reflection of the circles in which one mixes. For one to be brought up spiritually on “Thee” and “Thou” and then to change requires great effort. Conversely the writer of this article has known brothers come amongst the local assembly and to adopt the use of “Thee” in recognition of the majesty of God.
It is also necessary to take account of the fact that if someone’s native language is not English then they are unlikely to use “Thee” and “Thou” so easily at first. However very many languages do distinguish between the singular and plural in the use of personal pronouns.
Ultimately the matter is one of individual exercise. In discussing this subject, therefore it is not the intention to impose a restriction on the public participation of any brother. Nor is it suggested that a brother is being deliberately irreverent.
Some Common Questions
In pursuing this study we need to be mindful of some common questions raised such as:-
- Does it matter how we address Divine Persons?
- Are not “Thee and Thou” archaic terms?
- What has prompted the change in recent years?
- Is the use of “Thee” purely a traditional or cultural thing linked with certain minority groups?
Does it matter how we address Divine Persons?
Some have argued that we should address the Lord using “Thee” on the basis that we would approach royalty with deference and respect. So it is argued we should address the Lord differently. This is superficial. Divine Persons stand far above any mortal, be they royalty or commoner.
Familiarity with God is inappropriate. Ps. 89.7 says “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him”. We should therefore take every opportunity to show that we know God is different from ordinary people. To put the Lord Jesus on the same level as another mortal is blasphemous. To use “Thee and Thou” immediately introduces a distinction and there is absolutely no suggestion of familiarity.
Are “Thee and Thou” Archaic Terms?
In the preface to the 1952 edition of the Revised Standard Version the use of “Thee” and “Thou” is described as archaic. The dictionary definition of archaic is “no longer in common use, though retained for special purposes”. Archaic language is “language retained for special purpose”. There can be nothing more special than speaking to God in prayer.
Linguistic authorities suggest that the use of “you” in place of “Thee” was common in spoken English from the thirteenth century. The use of “Thee” and “Thou” in the AV is not therefore simply because this was the language of the day. It was not. The AV was not written in 16th or 17th century English. The use of “You” was common at that time and, in fact, the word “you” occurs over 2,000 times in the AV but never as an address to Deity. The AV did not conform to the language of its day. Interestingly King James is addressed as “you and your” in the preface to the AV.
What has Prompted the Change in Recent Years?
There may be many reasons. The main impetus to change has been the introduction of a wide variety of Bible translations, many of which, have over time, moved away from and ultimately abandoned the use of “Thee and “Thou”. There appears to be a direct link between modern translations and the use of “You” and “Your”.
The first action of the devil back in Gen. 3 was to cast doubt on God’s word. The multiplicity of modern translations has caused great confusion, not least to young people, and thus are not helpful. Some have been the source of doctrinal error, albeit unwittingly imbibed. Some of this error is consistent with the doctrinal stance of members of the editorial committees and could not therefore be seen as being introduced unwittingly into the particular translation.
One major problem with modern translations is that, because of their variety, they make more difficult and indeed inhibit the memorising of the Scriptures. It appears many young people today cannot quote Scripture, not least in the language of the AV.
In defence of the AV
The AV is being set aside by many today for rather spurious reasons. It is not as difficult to read as some argue. Indeed it is a fact that some have learned to read using the AV. The AV has been used to great effect down the centuries. It is based on the Received Text. As a general principle any translation not based on the Received Text is suspect. Most modern translations (i.e. those since 1881) have sought to discredit the Received Text.
A Brief History of the Development of Translations
There is a need to consider the development of Bible translation as it affects the use of “Thee” and “Thou”.
The AV is a far more accurate translation than all modern translations in that it clearly distinguishes between the second person singular and the second person plural. The former is always translated “thee or thou”, the latter is always rendered “you or your”. The singular form is always used in addressing God and the Lord Jesus Christ. The AV retains a distinction which is in the original text. Most translations since the 1960’s make no distinction.
They also ignore the accuracy of the receptor language. That is, good English allows for a distinction between the second persons singular and plural albeit that this is not adopted in common speech. But there is a distinction and there has been no change in the English language. We should not allow the deficiencies of the spoken word to undermine the accuracy of translation.
In the interim period i.e. between approximately 1800 and the 1960’s, there has been a great deal of inconsistency in translation. This has a direct link to, at best, doctrinal uncertainty, but in truth to doctrinal error. This is perhaps best illustrated by reference to the R.S.V. The use of “thee” and “thou” in this translation has changed over time. There is therefore a need to examine the date of the edition being used before recognising how these pronouns are to be understood.
In the early versions of the R.S.V. accuracy of translation was not the issue for it is stated in the preface that the use of “Thee” and “Thou” has been retained of Divine Persons and that “you” is used of men (with no apparent regard for the distinction between singular and plural). These sentiments have not been rescinded.
If we examine the text of Matt.16.16 in these early R.S.V. translations there is implicitly (hopefully not deliberately) a denial of the deity of the Lord Jesus. Against the declared intention of retaining “Thee” and “Thou” for Divine Persons, Matt. 16.16 is rendered “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Weakness of translation has given rise to a denial of the deity of the Lord Jesus. The use of “You and Your” is directly linked to fundamental error.
In the preface to the 1952 edition of the R.S.V. it is stated that the use of “thee” and “thou” (with indeed many other words) is archaic and in the 1972 version these words were abandoned. This issue of archaic language has been dealt with.
The use of these pronouns has also been encouraged by their occurrence in many modern hymns. Regrettably many of them misapply Scripture, taking it out of context or out of its dispensational setting. Many address the Lord Jesus in an inappropriate way e.g. He is often addressed as King when in fact this is really a term for Israel. He is our Head and Lord.
Is the Use of “Thee Purely a Traditional or Cultural Thing Linked with Certain Minority Groups?
It has been shown thus far that the use of “Thee and Thou” in the A.V. reflects accurately the original text. It is accurate English. Where the text uses the plural so does the A.V. The classic illustration of the accuracy of the A.V. is seen in Luke 22.31-32 which reads “. . . . Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren”. Here “you” refers to all the disciples, “thee” to Peter. The A.V. stands closely to Biblical language. We might conclude that the A.V. is in a Biblical style of English, not a form of language that was ever spoken, but based on the style of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures and an accurate translation.
It is correct to say that the original text did not use a different form of personal pronoun in speech addressed to God. However we should address God as the Bible addresses God. This is always in the singular. Nowhere in scripture is God addressed other than in the second person singular. Accuracy in translation and speech would render this “Thee or Thou”. This mode of address is the language with which to speak to Divine Persons (see Mark 1.11: Luke 3.22: Acts 1.24)
The use of “Thee and Thou” is not therefore a cultural thing.
The use of “You” and “Your” allows for no distinction in speech between God and men. Even if there were no textual justification for promoting the difference (which there is) there is a lot to be said for maintaining a distinction as a deliberate act of respect. To use “You” and “Your” brings God, albeit unintentionally, down to a human level.
Ps. 50.21 reads “… .thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes”. This positively promotes the idea of treating God in a different way. One such possible way is to use a different form of address.
The use of “You” and “Your” is associated with the denial of Fundamental doctrines.
The common practice in prayer and hymns today could lead to the introduction of error.
The AV retains the use of “Thee” and “Thou”, so do many of our best loved hymns written a long time after the use of you became common in the English tongue. Why not follow this pattern in our prayers? It is strange that many gladly sing these hymns but refuse to use these pronouns in addressing the Lord.
In the preface to the New English Bible in the 1960’s the following statement is made: “. . . .public …. are not generally ready for the use of “You” in address to God with all the overtones of familiarity and casual speech that this would bring with it.” What has changed to make this comment invalid today?
There are undoubtedly believers who feel that “Thee” and “Thou” are the most appropriate forms of address to the Father and the Son. Others have no similar conviction. It is hoped however that those with no conviction on the matter will recognize from the above that there are good reasons for the continuing use of “Thee” and “Thou” and if not fully persuaded will be willing to adopt this practice out of deference and respect for fellow saints.