Merits of the Older Language

Seeing the rather good match in language between the prayerbook and the King James Bible, I’ve been considering the merits of revising the 1662 Book of Common Prayer to put it into contemporary literary English commensurate with the ESV or a similar translation in the Tyndale-KJV stream (though the ESV committee, despite J. I. Packer’s being an Anglican, didn’t translate the Apocrypha). There are, however, features worth preserving in the old BCP that don’t mesh as well with newer Bible translations.

Holy Ghost

One such feature, as Peter Toon has pointed out, is the use of Holy Ghost as well as of Holy Spirit. The distinction, while not original to the biblical texts, expresses the faith in a what seems to be a sophisticatedly orthodox manner: the Holy Ghost, more than just the power of God or a ‘spirit’ in the sense of ‘the spirit of liberty’, is an actual person, a coequal member of the Trinity.

It would appear that in terms of what theologians call the immanent Trinity (that is, God as Three in One and One in Three in His own infinity and eternity) the ancient English tradition of prayer and of theology is to speak of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The word ‘Spirit’ is reserved for the action of ‘the Holy Ghost’ as the Spirit sent by the Father [and the Son] and working in creation and especially in and with man. So it appears that the word ‘Spirit’ is used of the Third Person when He is active within what theologians call ‘the economic Trinity’ (God in the economy of salvation in His relation to humanity).

In our own day, in which people so often reduce God and especially the Holy Ghost to a subjective presence (‘I feel the Holy Spirit with me’), it seems all the more advantageous to keep using the phrase Holy Ghost. There are already too many people claiming some special ‘anointing of the Spirit’ – excuse me for my scepticism, but there are too many ‘prophets’ taking advantage of people’s mushy subjectivities – for the Church to let the third person of the holy Trinity be further subjectivized.

Moses on Mount Sinai, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1895–1900.

Moses on Mount Sinai, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1895–1900.

When the Holy Ghost administers the gospel through the word and the sacraments, this application isn’t just a subjective feeling, which we may call a spirit, but an objective work of God that doesn’t depend for its power on the human mind. Whether you believe it or not, God has truly spoken when his word’s been read and preached; whether you believe it or not, God has truly been present and annexed his covenant promises to his people when his sacraments have been given. If you refuse to heed his word, and if you refuse to lean upon Christ in the sacraments, God has worked nevertheless, and so your faithlessness will become a curse to you.

This objectivity, expressed by the use of Holy Ghost, stands against the Feuerbachian idea of God ‘as a moral being or law’, of God as the abstract ‘principle of [man’s] salvation, of [man’s] good dispositions and actions, consequently [man’s] own good principle and nature’. It stands for God’s independence from man and ability to save man from outside and critique his heart from without and penetrate his spirit in Christ alone.

Thou-you distinction

Another feature worth preserving is the use of both thou and you to address the Christian. My interest in this point is not antiquarian: it’s not sentimental attachment to old things that makes me bring it up. As those know who are familiar with the use of thou and you in Shakespeare (or of tu and vous in French), the plural pronoun used as a singular expresses polite, respectful distance.

Assuming that the ‘you’ in the questions of the Catechist is addressed to one person at a time and thus the ‘you’ is here second person singular, how are we to explain this seeming oddity?

It would appear that the use of ‘thee, thou, thy’ points to a relation of intimacy, here an intimacy with the Gospel, the Church and with God the Father through Jesus Christ because of baptism and faith in the candidate.

At the same time, it would appear that the use of ‘you, ye, your’ points to an indirect relation via Godparents, a mediated relation. All the questions using ‘you’ presuppose the mediation of the Godparents and all the questions using ‘thou, thee, thy, thine’ presuppose a personal appropriation of the Faith by the candidate and thus an intimacy with the Lord.

The use of both thou and you, then, actually expresses evangelical doctrine: that those baptized in their infancy into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, who have inherited the faith of their fathers, are accountable for themselves before God and cannot rely on anyone else to believe in their place.

Conclusion

In choosing the form of our speech we respond to contemporary use of language (otherwise it will speak rightly to no one), but we also take part, as members of the speaker community, in forming that speech dialectically/dialectally. Indeed, BCP English is no less comprehensible to the initiate than contemporary Christianese – I will not speak at length of the disgusting Christian-ghetto world of Christian retail – but it urges doctrine much sounder, piety much purer, adoration much higher. If the way’s more difficult, the solution isn’t to dumb down the liturgy but to improve education.

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