“God, you’re the greatest. “
“God,. . . . . you’re a cool cat. “
The above words are not mine. The first were spoken by a grade school student at a local Christian school program. The second quote, taken from a young people’s magazine, comes from a poem by a high school student. The last formed the address in a congregational prayer by a minister in a Des Moineschurch. All occurred within the context of the “Reformed community.” These samples, which have come to my attention this past year; will serve to point to the seriousness of the “you-thou” controversy. At stake is one’s conception of God and the attitude one takes in prayer to God.
The “you-thou” controversy is one which is engaging parents, teachers, and ministers increasingly. Parents are concerned because their children are being instructed in the day schools by those who prefer to refer to the Deity with the pronouns you and your: Some teachers become involved when they insist on such words as thy, thou, and thine in their classrooms. The controversy naturally spills over into the area of music, since song is also a vehicle of speaking to and about God. There seem to be a few who are adamant on one side or the other, while the majority doesn’t seem to think it matters much one way or the other. Some ministers even use “you” and “thou” in their public prayers, either to show how tolerant they can be or how difficult it is to make the transition. It is our conviction that this is a serious matter and that those who are in a position to give leadership and instruction had better be correct. Does not James warn in the opening words of his third chapter that men ought not strive for the position of master and teacher, knowing that they shall receive the stricter judgment? Those who lead others have a grave responsibility. Those who instruct covenant children, whose tendency is to believe and trust, have the highest responsibility of all.
The reason for introducing familiarity into prayer is usually stated along these lines: God is invisible, the concept of God is so abstract, that it is difficult to get it across to little children. By referring to God in common, down-to-earth language we can make Him real in the child’s mind. Then He will not seem so far away, so abstract, and so unapproachable. Further, it is often stated that God and Christ ought to be such a part of our lives that we integrate Their Names into our vocabularies in a very natural way; to use thee, thou, thy, and thine is rather superficial and awkward. Before we get into the actual arguments that ought to be considered, we can note here that when we make the above reasons the matter of our concern, we busy ourselves with something that is really God’s work. God does not leave Himself without witness, also in respect to little children. Our attempts to make God real and comprehensible, no matter what language we use, will not succeed except that faith believes that God is, and that He is a rewarder of those that diligently seek Him. God testifies in the hearts of His children, young and old, and this Spirit-wrought testimony breaks through all barriers and abstractions.
It must be conceded that such words as thee and thoudo not carry the force of inspired authority. Some languages make a distinction between familiar and polite pronouns; the one to be used with one’s peers, the other in reference to various dignitaries, strangers who might be dignitaries, and the Godhead. For example, the Dutch has the familiar jou and the politeU and the German has du and Sie. If one turns to the original Biblical languages, however, he finds that the Hebrew and the Greek do not provide for such a distinction. So that the dispute is not actually between the usage of sacred language and modern usage, but between the usage of Old and Middle English of four centuries past and twentieth century practice (more especially language patterns of the last half of the twentieth century). The version of the Bible authorized by King James in 1611 reflected the usage of that day, and thus we find the words thee-thou-thine when the Godhead is addressed. In fact, these words are also used when one man speaks to another in the King James Version.
Nevertheless, it is our conviction that today we ought to preserve the distinction when we address God. As the centuries rolled by since the time of Shakespeare, the English language changed, and we are left only with common pronouns in our daily usage. But for some reason one exception prevailed; as all this time went by and language became more secularized and familiar, the words thee-thou-thine survived, and the use of them in respect to God persisted! This is a very good thing! And the reason for the survival of this practice surely is that the God who directed all that history is pleased by the distinction.
The heart of the controversy, after all, is our conception of God. The issues revolve about the points of Who God is, what is our relation to Him, and how are we to use His Names. The point is that we ought to employ every safeguard that we do not become guilty of breaking the third commandment by dragging the Name of God off the high pedestal where it belongs and making it common and profane. The danger is never that we honor God too highly or that we esteem Him too much, but the danger is always that we refuse to honor Him by treating the living God as just another being. Before we know it, we begin to think that God is altogether such an one as ourselves (Ps. 50:21). Is that not the greatest blasphemy and the worst profanity?
Let all those who want to make God seem real andclose to children read Isaiah 40:12-31. And let them read these verses to the children who come under their instruction. What power and wisdom is here revealed! What transcendence and glory! “Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of His understanding.” (Is. 40:28) If the power of such revelation does not send redeemed man looking for ways to exalt the Name of God and to lift it on high far above every other name, then perhaps man ought to ask himself the question whether he really knows God. It is no coincidence that this over-familiarity is pushed the harder in those circles where God’s sovereignty is only given lip service, and where salvation is pictured as a co-operative venture of God and man. But notice the first part of Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Those beautiful words, which everyone seems to want to emphasize, are true only because the rest of the chapter is true. There is comfort for Jerusalem because the Lord is omnipotent!
It is a question whether God hears a prayer which is not uttered in the consciousness of the transcendence of God and the unworthiness of man. In the forty-fifth Lord’s Day the question is asked, “What are the requisites of that prayer which is acceptable to God and which He will hear?” The answer is: “First, that we from the heart pray to the one true God only, who hath manifested himself in His word, for all things he hath commanded us to ask of Him; secondly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and our misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of His divine majesty; thirdly that we be fully persuaded that He, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as He has promised us in His word.” The Heidelberg Catechism removes all questions.
The quotations at the beginning of this article are sad. You will notice an increase in the degree of profanity as you pass from one to another. As was explained, the age of the individual also increased with each example. This is the result of modern education in the area of prayer. Does it make God seem real and close? Does it enable little children to understand God better? Does it result in true godliness? It ought to be clear that it fails miserably. It ought also to be clear that once a person sets out along lines which stress familiarity, there is no telling where he will stop. We might be shocked by these examples, and hopefully we are; but we ought not to pretend that this is as bad as it will get. The end point is contempt, absolute contempt of God!
May God keep us from all trends which result in the dishonor of His great Name. And may we continue to use that form of address which makes clear distinction between Creator-Redeemer and man.