Lord’s Prayer Language

Starting in June, 2013, the language of the Lord’s Prayer used in the 11:15 service will be updated to modern English found in the best modern Bible translations.  Compared to the earlier morning services, one distinctive of the 11:15 service is the use of more modern forms of expression in language and musical styles, and this change is consistent with that philosophy.

Below are the older and newer translations of the Lord’s Prayer with the key differences highlighted in bold:

Our Father, who art in heaven,         Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.                     hallowed be your name.

Thy kingdom come,                         Your kingdom come,

thy will be done,                                your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.                on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,       Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts                    and forgive us our debts

as we forgive our debtors.                 as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,        And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.                      but deliver us from the evil one.

For thine is the kingdom,                    For yours is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory forever. and the power, and the glory forever.

There are two types of change in the newer translation: (1) replacing older English pronouns with the forms used in modern English, and (2) replacing the word “evil” with “the evil one.”  Let’s explore the reasons for these changes in translation.

1.  Why get rid of “art” and change the pronouns from “thy” and “thine” to “your” and “yours”?

(1)  Following the Bible by praying in our own language.

The older English translation comes from the King James translation of the Bible, which was completed in 1611.  The second-person pronoun forms “thy” and “thine” and the third-person verb form “art” reflect patterns of written and spoken English that were familiar in the early seventeenth century.  The enormous cultural influence of the King James translation affected the language of prayer in Christian worship for centuries.  Up through the mid-twentieth century, it was routine for English-speaking Christians to use old English pronouns “thee” and “thou” in both written, corporate prayers and also in personal, private prayer.

However, almost all English-speaking Christian churches (including Central Presbyterian Church) now use one or more of the numerous English Bible translations produced in the past fifty years for at least a couple of reasons.  First, modern translators work from manuscripts of the Bible in its original Hebrew and Greek languages that are older, more numerous, and often more accurate than those employed by the authors of the King James translation.  Second, by using modern English the recent English translations better accomplish the intended purpose of the Bible to communicate God’s revelation in the language of its hearers and readers.

Because we now employ Bible translations in modern English in scripture readings, in sermons, and in every other form of spoken prayer in our worship services, praying the Lord’s Prayer in modern English brings greater consistency to our style of expression in corporate worship.  When God revealed himself to ancient peoples in Hebrew and Greek, he used forms of language that those peoples spoke and understood in their own day.  Thus, praying to God in modern English is a way for modern English speakers to translate and use biblical prayers in a manner consistent with the original purpose and function of God’s use of those languages in scripture.

Furthermore, there are no grounds in biblical language to use special pronouns to refer to God.  In the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, the pronouns for God are simply the same pronoun forms used for any other subject.  Thus, it is not necessary to say “thy” and “thine” in order to be faithful to the Bible or to show reverence for God.  The biblical authors inspired by God did not use any special pronouns to refer to God that were distinct from those used in ordinary language about other topics.

Since there is no sound biblical reason to translate the prayer in this way, the only reason for maintaining the practice is the inertia of tradition. This is a highly ironic rationale for Presbyterians to adopt since translating the Bible into vernacular languages was one of the most important principles of the Reformation heritage of the Presbyterian tradition. It was the medieval Catholic Church that insisted on preserving an archaic language (Latin) no longer spoken by ordinary people for no biblical reason, while the Reformers maintained that the Bible should be translated, taught, and prayed in the language of the people who received it. Praying the Lord’s Prayer in modern English is not only more consistent with the form and purpose of biblical language, it is also more faithful to the liturgical heritage of the Reformed tradition.

One potential objection related to this line of reasoning is the presence of the archaic language in many hymns that we still sing frequently in corporate worship.  Why should we abandon old English in the Lord’s Prayer if we sing old English regularly in some hymns?

There are two important distinctions between extra-biblical Christian hymns and the biblical text of the Lord’s Prayer that justify the continued use of archaic English in some songs.  First, archaic language is sometimes necessary to preserve the literary structure of a hymn.  For example, attempting to update the language merely by replacing “thee” with “you” would violate the literary structure of some hymns in which the word “thee” occurs in parallel with other words that end in the same sound in order to maintain a rhyme scheme.  Since the Lord’s Prayer is not a poem of this sort, these literary factors are not relevant to the use of “thy” and “thine” in the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, archaic English language in older hymns signals the historical time and setting of the original composition of the text.  Our singing the archaic English language in these old hymns therefore preserves the authentic form of the original composition and reminds us that we worship in union with many generations of Christians who have lived before us in many different periods and places in history.  The original language of the Lord’s Prayer, on the other hand, was not English but rather the form of ancient Greek spoken during Jesus’ earthly ministry in first-century Palestine.  Praying the Lord’s Prayer in seventeenth-century English has nothing to do with the authentic form or historical setting of the original text; rather, it only preserves one particular English translation of the prayer.

(2)  Ease of understanding in teaching and learning Christian worship

This consistency of modern English expression can help those who are young and/or new to the Christian faith and to the use of the Lord’s Prayer in corporate worship.  Modern language is easier to understand than archaic forms of English, and using archaic English introduces unnecessary and potentially confusing inconsistency into the church’s practice of spoken prayer.  Thus, praying the Lord’s Prayer in modern English eliminates unnecessary obstacles for those who are beginning to learn the Christian faith and our traditions of worship.

From a missional perspective, the preservation of archaic language is a practice that few would defend in other cultural contexts.  Would anyone at Central defend teaching Mexican Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the Spanish of 17th-century Spain? Or French-speaking Christians in Ivory Coast to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the language of 17th-century France? If not, then why should Christians in the United States continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the language of 17th-century England?

2.  Why change “evil” to “the evil one”?

This phrase occurs in the form of the Lord’s Prayer recorded in Matthew 6:13. In the original Greek language of the book of Matthew, the use of the adjective “evil” (poneros) with a definite article (“the”) always refers to a personal being: “the evil one” (Matt 5:37; 5:39; 13:19; 13:38; 13:49).  Other New Testament books follow the same pattern: poneros with a definite article in a prepositional phrase refers to personal beings (John 17:15; Ephesians 6:16; 1 John 2:13–14; 3:12; 5:18–19).  In the context of Matt 6:13 and 13:38, the reference is to Satan, and this interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer fits quite naturally within the flow of Matthew’s narrative in which Jesus successfully resists the temptations of the evil one (Matthew 4) just prior to Jesus’ instruction on prayer and other topics (Matthew 5-7).

Many biblical scholars recognize this pattern in the language of the New Testament authors.  In fact, the three earliest Christian treatises on the Lord’s Prayer by Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian (all third-century writers) all interpret Matthew 6:13 as a reference to “the evil one.”  (For an English translation, see Alistair Stewart-Sykes, ed. and trans., Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen on the Lord’s Prayer [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004].)  Modern biblical translators and commentators also render the phrase this way.  See, for example, the footnote in the English Standard Version (ESV) that suggests “the evil one” as a translation.

The practical effect of this change is that we remember the reality of spiritual warfare.  Jesus and the New Testament writers routinely warn us that Satan and his demonic allies attack us.  The Lord also assures us that he is able to protect and deliver us by enabling us to resist and stand firm in the truth and strength he supplies (Ephesians 6:10-20; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8-11).  By praying “deliver us from the evil one,” Jesus teaches us to seek God’s strength continually to resist the personal attack of the particular evil embodied in this adversary who seeks our destruction.

1 thought on “Lord’s Prayer Language

  1. Pingback: Notes and News Summer 2013 | Cardiphonia

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