Questions and Answers


          Many Christians believe it is more reverential to use 'archaic English' pronouns (Thee, Thy, Thou, etc.), as opposed to modern pronouns (You, Your, You, etc.) in common usage, when addressing Divine Persons in prayer.  As in every matter of faith and teaching, we should govern our behavior and practice by what is stated in holy scripture.  There are many examples in both the Old Testament and the New Testament where believers opened their hearts in prayer to Almighty God.  But various translations of the Scriptures differ in how they handle these examples of prayer.  Some translations use old [archaic] forms of language in addressing Divine Persons whereas others use more modern forms.

          The first complete 'English' translation of the New Testament was made in 1380 by John Wycliffe.  Let us compare his 'old English' translation of the beginning of the apostles' prayer in Acts 4:24-25a, with six other translations that use more modern language:

     "And whanne thei herden, with oon herte thei reiseden vois to the Lord, and seiden, Lord, thou that madist heuene and erthe, see, and alle thingis that ben in hem, which seidist bi the Hooli Goost, bi the mouth of oure fadir Dauid, thi child,..." (Wycliffe - 1380)

     "And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is: Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said...." (King James Version - 1611)

     "And they, having heard it, lifted up their voice with one accord to God, and said, Lord, *thou* art the God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them;  who hast said by the mouth of thy servant David...." (New Translation by J. N. Darby - 1867)

     "And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, 'Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit... " (Revised Standard Version - 1946)

     "When they heard it, they all joined together in prayer to God: 'Master and Creator of heaven, earth, and sea, and all that is in them! By means of the Holy Spirit you spoke through our ancestor David, your servant, when he said...." (Today's English Version - 1966)

     "Then all the believers united in this prayer: 'O Lord, Creator of heaven and earth and of the sea and everything in them - You spoke long ago by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor King David, your servant, saying...." (The Living New Testament - 1967)

     "So when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: "Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said...." (New King James Version - 1979)

          Should we pray in archaic English or in modern English?  How to resolve the question?

Is one of the above translations more correct than the others?

        First note that four of the above versions, (Wycliffe, RSV, Living NT, TEV), preferred the Greek text that mentions the Holy Spirit speaking through David, while KJV, Darby, NKJV preferred the Greek text that omits reference to the Holy Spirit in this passage.  This is what is known as a variant reading found in some Greek texts, but not in others.  (It was a reading of the text preferred by "textual critics" Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, and Alford [L, T, Tr, A], but not by Elzevir, Griesbach, Wordsworth, or Westcott & Hort [E, G, W, WH]).  This does not affect the meaning of the passage, nor does it impact on the question before us.

Do each of the above translations render the pronouns consistently throughout their respective translations?

        In the original Hebrew and Greek there are no "reverent" pronouns used only when addressing Deity, versus "common" pronouns used when addressing an ordinary individual.  If a translation is consistent with the original text it will translate such pronouns identically throughout the scriptures.  In other words, if the translation uses the modern English pronoun "you" to address an ordinary person, it should use the same pronoun "you" to address Deity.  To do otherwise is to introduce the bias of the translator into the passage.  (Similarly, some teachers rely on the translator's use of upper case letters to distinguish between nouns and pronouns referring to Deity from those referring to ordinary people, even though the copies of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek have no such distinguishing feature.

        Wycliffe, KJV, and Darby consistently use the archaic English form "thou, thy, etc" to address ordinary individuals, and to address Deity.  The NKJV, TEV and Living NT both consistently use the modern English form "you, your, etc" in addressing Deity and ordinary individuals.

        The RSV, however, inconsistently uses the form "thou, thy, etc" to address Deity, but switches to "you, your, etc" when addressing ordinary individuals.  Thus, the decision of their translating committee was to pray in archaic English but to speak in modern English.

Is there any specific passage of scripture that tells us to pray in archaic English?

        Since the Holy Scriptures were written in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Common Greek languages hundreds of years before the English language existed, there cannot be any passage instructing us in the use of "old" versus "modern" English to address God.  However, there are Christians who believe the King James Version is a semi-inspired translation that was specially preserved for us, and that any attempt to correct or replace it is not according to God's will.  These well-meaning believers ignore the fact that even the King James Version has passed through several quiet revisions since 1611.  We highly regard the King James Version, and use it extensively, but do not hold the translation or its notes to be in any way 'inspired.'  We believe the original texts are God's words to us, and the closer we can get to them the closer we get to what God actually said.

Does God pay more attention to a prayer in archaic English than one in modern English speech?

        One doubts that the precise terminology we use in prayer plays a part in what God "hears" when we pray.  What God pays attention to are the words of the Holy Spirit, not human oratory. 

     "And in like manner the Spirit joins also its help to our weakness; for we do not know what we should pray for as is fitting, but the Spirit itself makes intercession with groanings which cannot be uttered.
     "But he who searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he intercedes for saints according to God. " (Rom. 8:26-27)

Thus, the finesse of our speech is mainly for the 'hearing' of those in the prayer room.  It does little to persuade God.

Does religious feeling play a part in this?

        No doubt tradition and religious feeling can motivate us in this matter.  In my Sunday school days every audible prayer used the archaic English forms "thee, thou, thy, hath, hast, doth, etc."  Some will say that it just doesn't seem comfortable to pray in modern English, and we must not be critical of their feelings.  At the same time we are less happy if we were to rely on external crutches such as fancy robes, stained glass windows, ordained clergy, etc.  'Religious feelings' (i.e., "the flesh") can even manifest themselves alongside true worship, such as with entertainment type music, and even by 'gazing at the elements' of the Lord's Supper.  Let's recognize, and lay aside "religious flesh" and get back to worship "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23)!

Can one's choice of a mode of prayer upset the faith of a 'weak Christian'?

        1 Corinthians 8 has to do with eating or not eating meat that may have been originally offered to an idol. If Paul bought the meat in a market, he did not care what ritual it may have passed through on its way from the farm to the cook pot. He knew that an idol was not a real 'god' and so had liberty to eat the meat.  His only fear was that his 'liberty' might become a stumbling block to them that are weak.  I am not sure how that principle could impact whether a brother prays in modern English or in archaic English, nevertheless it is worth considering the following passage with this thought in mind:

     "But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
     "Let not then your good be evil spoken of:
     "For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
     "For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men.
     "Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
     "For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.
     "It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.
     "Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.
     "And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin." (Rom. 14:15-23)

Is the 'old English' prayer understandable to others?

        I have heard sincere brethren go whole-heartedly into 'old English' when praying, extending the 'old English' beyond the prepositions.  Thus 'would' became 'wouldest', and 'knew' became 'wistist', etc.  Thus, to some younger folk, his prayer might not be unlike speaking in an unknown tongue, without benefit of an interpreter (see 1 Cor 14:13).

        Significantly, there has been a dramatic change in the way certain verbs were pronounced versus the way they were spelled at the time the King James Version of 1611 was translated.

    Spelling and pronunciation in English are very much like trains on parallel tracks, one sometimes racing ahead of the other before being caught up.  An arresting example of this can be seen in the slow evolution of verb forms in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that turned hath into has and doth into does.  Originally -th verbs were pronounced as spelled.  But for a generation or two during the period from (roughly) 1600 to 1650 they became pronounced as if spelled in the modern way, even when the spelling was unaltered.  So, for example, when Oliver Cromwell saw hath or chooseth, he almost certainly read them as "has" or "chooses" despite their spellings.  Only later did the spellings catch up. [Cited by Jespersen, page 213] - (Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue, English & How It Got That Way, William Morrow and Company, Inc., p. 97)

        So, according to Jespersen and Bryson, the readers of the King James Version would have pronounced many of the verbs used in prayer to the Almighty in the way they are used today in modern speech, and in modern translations of Scripture.

Can an 'elder' tell me how I must pray?

        We faintly recall hearing of an instance where an 'elder' in a local gathering of Christians insisted that prayer in his congregation be made using archaic English.  In my opinion a dictatorial elder who has little regard for 'Christian liberty' might well reflect as to whether he might feel more at home in a denominational church, where he is the sole authority.  The scriptural order is to have multiple godly men performing the duties of elders and shepherds while each of these men are fully subject to the written word of God.  A true shepherd is one who leads, not forces.  And the ministry of a spiritual shepherd does not result in bondage, but in liberty.

     "For *ye* have been called to liberty, brethren; only do not turn liberty into an opportunity to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
     "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." (Gal. 5:13-14)

     "but if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under law." (Gal. 5:18)