Just in Time for Valentine’s Day

A member showed me an AT&T ad from Sunday’s paper.  At the top of the page in block letters in the question:  How do I love thee?”  He has written to the side, “Even AT&T understands what editors of modern Lutheran hymnals do not.”


He’s right.  AT&T and most English speaking people of reasonable intelligence know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous line doesn’t work, doesn’t mean the same thing with ‘you’ instead of ‘thee’ because you in modern English can be a plural as well as a singular.  If Browning’s sonnet sought to answer “How do I love you,” she would be counting still.


The defenders of ‘you’ versus ‘thee,” say people don’t talk that way today.  They didn’t talk that way in the 1940s either, but churches retained the language.  They say it “puts off young people.”  I say, some, young people need to be put off.


Furthermore, I think it a small thing for the generation that expects me to understand, appreciate, and use their clipped, broken, digitized (meaning they added numbers to words – 4sure) language to do likewise with my ‘thee’s, thy’s, and thou’s.’  And finally, this generation that revels in the absurd ought to appreciate the hilarity of the people of God sounding like a resident of Appalachia yodeling down a holler as they address God in prayer as “You who.”  (Say it five times fast and you’ll get the point.)


However, it’s not just that I want to retain an older, clearer, nobler way of speaking; I want to retain correct theology.  The Proper Preface of the Communion liturgy closes in Lutheran Worship and The Lutheran Service Book as follows: “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, ever more praising You and saying.”  Though we know the original, ancient formula was singular, you can only tell this in The Lutheran Hymnal which renders it, “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, every more praising Thee and saying.”  Since most Proper Prefaces (Try saying that 5 times fast!) mention the Father and the Son and sometimes the Holy Spirit, I think that people will naturally take these ‘you’s’ as plurals.


What does it matter?  One, the Church bequeathed them to our generation as singulars not plurals.  “This is a liturgical introduction which leads into the heart of the communion office. In its exalted sentences we have the oldest and least changed part of the liturgy” (Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, 324). Two, Sasse notes somewhere that in the East the Church understand the Trinity as 3 in 1 while the West understands the Trinity as three-fold.  The East is always thinking of oneness when speaking of three-ness; the West three-ness when speaking of oneness.  In the Proper Preface, the East bleeds over to our West reminding us of the importance of God’s oneness even when we’re speaking of His three-ness.


Does it really matter if we fail to distinguish a singular from a plural?  Elizabeth Barrett Browning thought so, AT&T thinks so, and the Church for centuries before us thought so.  If you think not, try saying on Valentine’s Day to your sweetie, “How do I love you?”  If we are hesitant to alter a 19th century sonnet this way, perhaps we should hesitate before altering a 19 centuries old prayer that way.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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2 Responses to Just in Time for Valentine’s Day

  1. Xan says:

    My middle school Latin teacher restored this precision to modern English, in order to verify that we were translating properly, by defining “you” as second person singular, and “y’all” as second person plural. We Texans can even can be more precise than the ancients, since in addition to singular and plural, we have the comprehensive: “all y’all”.

    Might make the liturgy sound a bit weird though.

    More seriously, doesn’t even the 1940s hymnal suffer from altering the 18-centuries-old Apostles’ Creed to “Christian” from “catholic”, only because of a quirk of medieval German?

    I’d say it suffers – to use 21st century language – from a bogarting of the word catcholic by the Bishop of Rome. In any event, we are following a 7 centuries old practice for reasons that still pertain in the 21st century.

  2. andy says:

    I saw this and thought you might be interested. I have heard this being discussed a lot more in my travels. The lack of staying power is starting to hit home with a lot of evangelicals. Hope all is well and have a blessed Easter,


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