Capitalizing Pronouns Referring to Deity

I write Bible textbooks for a living, and the various publishing houses for which I write (a grand total of two) have style manuals. Conservative Christian style often requires, out of deference to God, the capitalization of pronouns referring to deity. I picked up the habit years ago of capitalizing “Him” and “His” when referring to any person of the Trinity. But I’ve begun to doubt that practice. And I’m beyond doubt when it comes to other pronouns. I find the following capitalization, for example, jarring and unnecessary:

It is a big benefit for a person who is bent crooked by Adam’s sin to be afraid of the Being Who defines what straight is.

Same with this:

Moses says, “Well, even if I do go, what am I supposed to tell the Israelites about Who sent me? What is Your name?”

This second example presents two interesting problems:

  1. Untitled-1 copyBy capitalizing “Who” we are making Moses imply that he already knows the answer to his question!
  2. By capitalizing “Your” we’re also attributing some sort of intentionality to Moses, something that can put us on dangerous mind-reading ground. When some Pharisees, for example, say to Jesus, “We wish to see a sign from You” (Matt 12:38, NASB), would they be happy with our decision to capitalize their pronoun? (Rod Decker has also pointed out that such a practice creates problems in Messianic psalms and in Isaiah’s servant songs. He also says that the great majority of standard Bible translations do not capitalize pronouns referring to deity).

I’m afraid our capitalization of deity pronouns has become like the practice of refusing to put anything on top of a Bible. After a time it almost becomes a superstition rather than a meaningful way of glorifying God. Pronoun capitalization is a tool I’d like to keep in my belt for special situations and not be forced to use every time.

Here’s what the Zondervan Style Manual has to say, and I think there’s some real wisdom here:

The capitalization of pronouns referring to persons of the Trinity has been a matter of debate for many decades. Should He be capitalized when referring to God or not? Impassioned arguments have been offered up on both sides of the question. The following paragraphs outline Zondervan’s policy and the reasoning behind it.

In Most Cases, Lowercase the Deity Pronoun. Although both the lowercase and capped styles have long and deeply rooted pedigrees in English literature, this manual advocates the use of lowercase pronouns in nearly all situations.

Reasons for Lowercasing. Many religious publishers and most general publishers have adopted the lowercase style, in large part to conform to the styles of the commonly used versions of the Bible (the KJV) NIV, and RSV). It is the style recognized as contemporary by the greatest number of readers and writers both inside and outside the church.

Because capitalizing the deity pronoun, as well as a vast number of other religious terms, was the predominate style in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publishing, it gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of complete irrelevance to modern readers.

Contrary to popular opinion, capitalization is not used in English as a way to confer respect (we capitalize both God and Satan, Churchill and Hitler). . . . Capitalization is largely used in English to distinguish specific things from general. Jesus is no more specific than Peter, and both should therefore be referred to as he.

Some writers argue that the capitalized style should be used to avoid confusion of antecedents in closely written text (for instances, whether Jesus or one of the disciples is being referred to as he in a given passage). Even in this last case, a careful writer should be able to make the meaning clear without capitalization. After all, the writer should be able to distinguish between the twelve disciples without resorting to typographic tricks.

Many readers, especially the younger ones, do not recognize the reason for such typographic conventions, and the capitalized pronoun may actually cause confusion or be read as emphasis when none is implied.

Finally, an insistence on the capped style can introduce unintended religio-political overtones into a publication. When He is capped for God or Jesus, it can appear, to younger readers especially, as though the author is purposely emphasizing the maleness of the deity, in direct response to feminist theologians who argue for the inclusiveness of God. Apart from the merits of either side of that debate, the capitalized deity pronoun introduces a polemical overtone that may wholly detract from the topic at hand.

Is Capitalization Ever Justified? There are some situations in which the capitalization of deity pronouns is preferred, for instance, in books that have a deliberately old-fashioned tone or when the author quotes extensively from a Bible version that uses the capitalized style (such as the New King James or New American Standard). When deity pronouns are capitalized, though, the words who, whom, and whose should not be. . . .

Comments

  1. says

    This thought crossed my mind this weekend as I read a book published in 1990 that consistently used capitalized third person pronouns for God. This book was more biographical in nature, so I expect to see this more often, but it was striking since I have not seen this in a while, especially in more academic literature.

    I agree that the sense comes across to some extent as super-pious or possibly superstitious. Maybe we should just consider it a case of supererogation.

  2. says

    1. Hymns like that are often written with an older feel anyway, so capitalizing at least the personal pronouns would seem to fit. There’s no right or wrong; we’re trying to judge the intended audience.
    2. That’s a great question. Hmmm… I bet good Christian usage guides would have something to say about that. My feeling is that the lower-case would be better at this point—for the same reasons given in the post about pronouns. It seems like a superstition.

    But that brings us back to intended audience and to the so-helpful concept of the “skunked expression.” If most people you write for will tsk-tsk you for leaving something lower-case—even though you have good reasons and they’ve never even thought about the issue—it may not be worth the battle.

  3. says

    I love that the NASB and NKJ capitalize because it brings clarity. For example, without capitalization it’s easy to read through Psalm 45 and not realize that the chapter is referring to the messiah and not just a great king and queen. (The King is referring to Jesus and thus the queen referring to us, the church.) Capitalizing the words “King”, “Mighty One”, “Your” and “You” make it clear on a casual reading that this is not talking about just any king but THE King.

    Maybe others are just wiser or have the ability to look at the Hebrew as they read and thus don’t need the helps, but for me the help is very beneficial.

  4. says

    All that you say is true, Keith. I find this a help, too. But what about OT passages which are not clearly Messianic? A Bible that capitalizes pronouns there would be shunting users into one interpretation; it may be a good one, but it may be overly speculative and therefore ultimately misleading.

    Actually, enough good conservative scholars work on any given translation that it’s unlikely people will be radically misled (though no translation ever claims to be perfect, either).

    So I recommend the use of several good translations, especially when you’re studying a passage carefully. The use of a translation that doesn’t capitalize deity pronouns may remind you that you need to consider carefully whether that passage is truly messianic or not. The Hebrew and Greek don’t really tell you.

    We have an embarrassment of riches in our English Bible translations. We should make use of it.

  5. says

    My rule-of-thumb is to capitalize “Word,” “Scripture,” and “Trinity” if they’re preceded by “the,” as it denotes their “proper-ness.” Obviously ones such as “Trinity” would always be capitalized because there really is no general sense of that word. AKA there’s no such thing as “a trinity,” but there is just, “the Trinity.” Usually Scripture isn’t preceded by “the,” and sometimes it’s even made plural. However, unless preceded by an indirect article – “a,” then it should be assumed that it is the defined Scripture that is being referred to, and thus it is a proper noun and should be capitalized.

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