One of My Favorite Theologians Questions Me on My Decision Not to Capitalize Deity Pronouns

Posted by permission and with slight editing from both parties.

Hey Mark,

I just noted your upcoming column on deity pronouns. My only beef with it is that it seems to me to set up a straw man and completely ignores a stronger and more pertinent argument. I’m sure there are people who argue for capitalization on the grounds of tradition and respect; I just don’t know any (as far as I’m aware). My argument is clarity, pure and simple. That clarity extends not only to our writing about God, but also to the biblical text itself.

You gave an example in your column; so shall I: Beyond Suffering, ch. 10, endnote 45 (p. 315). Here it is in a nutshell as I should have written it:

Carson interprets [Job] 9:30–31 as a plural reference to Job’s friends. “No matter how pure he is, his friends would find him impure: their position demands it” (p. 164). But this reading is foreign to the immediate context and grammar; the pronoun is singular. Job has been talking about God since 9:2; he appears to be speaking to God in exactly the same vein, beginning at least in 9:27 (note 9:28). In 9:30–31, then, Job refers to God’s apparent determination to treat him like one of the guilty wicked. A survey of over a dozen commentators produced none that supported Carson’s interpretation. Rowley (p. 99) mentions but rejects the textual emendation of Duhm and Lagarde to produce the meaning “my friends.” Job uses the second person plural pronoun whenever he is speaking to the friends but seems to reserve the second person singular pronoun for his frequent and frank interchanges with God.“

Perhaps Carson was glancing at one of those non-capitalizing modern translations (ESV, NET, NIV) when he made his comment. Like most Bible readers, he probably wasn’t looking at the Hebrew, or even the KJV (which, though it does not capitalize, nevertheless employs the Elizabethan distinction between a sing. and pl. second-person pronoun). Nor, for that matter, was he probably looking at NKJV, NASB, or HCSB which do capitalize—not so the average reader may reverence the pronoun, but so that he is alerted to what’s actually going on in the text (which is sort of the point of a text in the first place…except for poets, postmodernists, and Barth =).

It’s similar (indeed, in my example, connected) to the sing. vs. pl. second-person pronoun issue; but then, I know we disagree about that, too. So my purpose in writing is not to try to convince you on the capitalization issue; but it is to perhaps persuade you to at least address the clarity argument the next time you bash us Deity Capitalizers. =)

For the love of words, affectionately,

LT

Layton Talbert, PhD Professor of Theology & Biblical Exposition


Dr. Talbert,

I finally got a chance to wrap my mind around this…

And here’s what I’d say: the benefits of my approach outweigh this admitted detriment. I’d prefer for translators to use options that don’t feel like weird, specialized English. So in this case, I’d recommend a footnote. If translators feel that the number of the pronoun (namely singular) should be called out, they could do it with a note.

Ever since I came to Logos and started writing about whatever interested me, I noticed that what interested me was often generated by my experiences ministering in the neighborhoods around Mount Calvary. I see specialized English like all caps LORD (which I’m not on a crusade against, but which I now realize violates the principle I’m enunciating) and capitalized deity pronouns and small-caps OT quotes (NASB) as unnecessary burdens on poor readers, like the people I taught for a decade in NBC.

More importantly, however, I’ve been trying for years to refine my sense of what feels natural to educated readers and writers of English, to strip out rules that are merely fussy and pedantic and not genuinely helpful for communication. And I think capitalized deity pronouns are fussy and not helpful. Contemporary evangelical books have mostly dropped the practice, and the editors at all those houses constitute a plebiscite of sorts supporting my position. It’s their sense, too, that the caps on deity pronouns feel like emphasis or shouting (or Emily Dickinson? =). If we’re going to take seriously both poles of the translation task, base language and target language, we need to be just as wary of messing with the latter as we are with messing with the former.

However, I’ll backtrack one important step: we have multiple translations and multiple kinds of editions (study editions and readers editions being the main two categories in my mind, with many subcategories, especially among study editions). Why not let the NASB go all Bible-code and give us all those specialized pieces of typographical interpretive shorthand, but let the NIV and ESV and CSB be written in more natural English? I already use the NASB that way for those NT quotations of the OT (even though that, too, requires interpretation and isn’t always clear).

Now, do we disagree about distinguishing the number of second person pronouns? You think we ought to retain something like thou vs. you?

mlwj


Mark,

“Thou” and “you,” no; manifestly not. Nor would I even suggest “you” vs. “y’all” (though I’m reasonably certain Southerners didn’t create or perpetuate that distinction because it’s cute). If, however, (a) the difference between “you [sing.]” and “you [pl]” was instantly apparent to the original readers from the very grammar of the original text, and (b) that distinction is not infrequently significant for accurate interpretation and understanding, especially in texts where the context simply does not otherwise clarify the intended referent, then it seems to me that accurate translation (that is concerned with the target’s accurate understanding) into a language that does not readily have such distinctions could/should devise some unobtrusive means of preserving that distinction that is, in fact, part of the original text—at least in places where that distinction is not otherwise signaled by the context. Whether that’s an asterisk on the plural forms of the pronoun, or (as you suggest) a footnote—the precise demarcation may be debated. The argument that the modern translations are good specifically because they rescue the Bible from the archaic “thee’s and thou’s” is, imo, short-sighted, and demonstrates an ignorance of the significance of those very “thee’s and thou’s” for sometimes being the key to accurate understanding of the text. (My favorite example of this is Luke 22:31-32.)

So, no, I wouldn’t argue for preserving outmoded or unnatural language; but I would argue for using very common tools at our disposal in order to perpetuate a more accurately understood translation—just on the textual level. (If even a D. A. Carson misconstrues a text because of this very thing, where does that leave the rest of us! =) Especially when the difference on the linguistic level makes a palpable difference on the interpretational, theological, and applicational levels.

LT


Dr. Talbert,

I don’t dispute (a), but I do dispute an idea I think is implicit in your reasoning: that we should never remain satisfied with a situation in which base and target languages differ structurally to such a degree that some linguistic information just doesn’t get transferred. Gender, rhymes and other word-plays (like the alliteration of alpha privatives in one vice list I can think of), and other things can’t be transferred, or only clumsily and in special cases (“faithless, heartless, ruthless,” for example, nicely picks up those privatives by making them suffixes instead of prefixes). But if you’re right (b) that the number distinction in second-person pronouns is not infrequently significant for interpretation, especially in contexts which don’t provide enough information to make a right interpretation, then it’s worth looking at ways to solve that problem. I think, however, that this calls for a doctoral student somewhere to go through the Bible and tell us how often this occurs. My impression is that it is not frequent, that mandating an asterisk (or some other universal code, like LORD for YHWH) would distract much more often than it would help. (My impression is strengthened by the fact that English gets along just fine without a you vs. y’all distinction—in most regions. =) I still think the best way forward would be to let translators and interpreters work together with that (BJU?) doctoral student to discover the places in the Bible where a footnote is needed to clarify that a given second person pronoun is plural or singular. Your example from Job 9 is a good one.

So the question is: how palpable, how frequent is the need for pronoun clarification that the context doesn’t already provide?

And I’m still liking my idea of relegating all those special codes to the NASB…

mlwj


Mark,

Good points, and a philosophy more consistently thought-through and applied than mine—though I think you overstate (or overextend) the idea implicit in my reasoning. Though they may add a level of interest and edge to one’s understanding, I suspect rhymes and wordplays are rarely if ever crucial to accurate interpretation (though I could be wrong; clearly you’ve thought about this way more than I have). However, I also suspect I need to drop the “not” on “not infrequently.” The impact of pronoun-number on interpretation is certainly hermeneutically significant, but considering the occasions when the context is ambiguous and pronoun-number alone is determinative for accurate meaning, “frequent” is probably not a justifiable modifier.

LT


Dr. Talbert,

Looks like we both overstated our cases… I really do wonder if a PhD student at BJU could help us state them correctly. Title: Translational Trade-Offs. Thesis: The best set of trade-offs for a literal translation is this list; the best set of trade-offs for a dynamic translation is this one. A whole chapter could be dedicated to listing out (and briefly arguing for) the passages in the Bible in which a footnote is likely to be needed to clarify the number of the second-person pronouns. This could be a help to translators, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. (A little research with translation consultants could also surface similar characteristic problems that occur when translating into non-Indo-European languages.)

And I’ve got a radical idea I’ve never heard anyone else float, certainly not among conservatives: might it be possible for Wycliffe and Bibles International to serve complementary purposes? That is, couldn’t a maturing Christian church use two translations, each pushing toward a diffferent end of the literal-to-dynamic continuum? If a Bible translation is both the Word of God (in one sense) and (in another) a tool for understanding the words of God, why have only one? I proposed this to a Bible translator friend and he isn’t yet convinced. But I’ll work on him.

mlwj

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

8 thoughts on “One of My Favorite Theologians Questions Me on My Decision Not to Capitalize Deity Pronouns”

  1. I’m just curious… wouldn’t the smoothest reading of Job 9:31 in a functional equivalent translation be to substitute the referent noun “God” (in italics of course), for the pronoun? Of course it would probably still need a footnote, and maybe go something like this:

    “yet God[1] will plunge me into a pit,”

    [1]: Heb. “you.”

    I suppose still needing a footnote does not sufficiently alleviate the amount of “Bible code” involved, but I wonder if that sort of solution would help in the cases where pronoun ambiguity makes a difference.

    Curious of your thoughts on this.

  2. Hi Brother Mark,

    A blessed 2017 to you and your family and to you as well brother Talbert. I really enjoyed this exchange and learned a great deal. This has never been a topic familiar to me, other than what may be a related conversation about which bible version is best. I steer clear of those conversations and it’s not only because the first time I read an English bible was 12-13 years ago.

    Dr. Talbert, that was an impressive catch, especially with Carson. ; – ). I am not a student at BJU, but do wonder if it’s possible to configure such a search in Logos. .

    While going through the exchange several verses came to mind and I’ve selected three examples below. I would appreciate any comments as to how important the 2PP becomes and which may be gleaned from context. As to my opinion on CAPS, well, self-evident and just an opinion.

    Jn 3.12 εἰ τὰ ἐπίγεια εἶπον ὑμῖν καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε, πῶς ἐὰν εἴπω ὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε;

    While possibly debatable if Jesus is addressing all the Pharisees, or the remaining 69 Sanhedrin rulers, the lack of the 2PP I noticed going through several English Versions, unless I knew the Greek, I would be lost. c.f. 3.7, Ac. 5.30

    Jn 3.7 μὴ θαυμάσῃς ὅτι εἶπόν σοι· δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν.

    Along the same lines.

    Ac. 5.30 ὁ θεὸς τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν ἤγειρεν Ἰησοῦν ὃν ὑμεῖς διεχειρίσασθε κρεμάσαντες ἐπὶ ξύλου·

    While Acts may possibly be gleaned from context, I also see the English lack of a 2PP needed for study as an aid to understanding. The author is speaking to a crowd, yes, however, the responsibility for the murder is a total of 8 (people and groups).

    While not related, I’ve always viewed Nicodemus’ comments as elitist and wondered who the “we” is. Perhaps Joseph of Arimathea and or other Jewish leaders? Again, this is of course just my opinion, I base elitist on “Rabbi” and “Teacher.” While polite, are we being shown the unregenerate state of Nicodemus, ἀπὸ θεοῦ is in the emphatic position and the miracles or signs place Jesus as God with Him/us. Or, is it simply that at first Nicodemus wished to approach Him as one Teacher or Rabbi to another?

    Jn 3.1 Ἦν δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων· 2. ῥαββί, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος· οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετʼ αὐτοῦ.

    Jn 3.1 There was a man of the Pharisees called Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2. He came to visit Jesus at night and said to Him, “Rabbi, [we] know You are a teacher come from God, for none are able to do the miracles You have unless God is with Him.”

    Jn 3.10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· σὺ εἶ ὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις;

    Jn 3.10 Jesus replied and said to him; you are a teacher (ruling class) of Israel,and void of understanding?

    Thank you. .

    Dean

  3. Hey Dean,

    Good questions. Pronouns are only as specific as their antecedents and/or the context itself. When Nicodemus is introduced (3:1) as “one of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews,” it seems both the 1PP (3:2) and the 2PP (3:12), though plural, are fairly generic. Nicodemus seems to represent at least a body of opinion among one or both of those groups, which doesn’t sound right until you recall this is quite early in Jesus’ ministry before (as we are later told) opposition to him galvanized among the leadership. The only response to Jesus we’re told about in John’s narrative so far is positive (2:11, 23). [What response His first cleansing of the temple received we’re not told, but since the temple “market” was instigated by the priestly leadership it seems not unlikely that it would have been unpopular among many of the Pharisees (who were not naturally tight with the Sadducees; it will take a mutual enemy like Jesus to bring natural enemies–like Pharisees and Sadducees, or Herod and Pilate–together). Also, whether 2:20 is hostile or merely incredulous is not clarified but, in light of the other miracles he did (2:23), it was probably a mix; the text is our only definitive clue, and it’s pretty quiet on that point here.]

    So where was I. Oh yes, “we” (3:2) and “you/ye” (3:12). For the former, I’ll defer to Carson’s brief but helpful summary (in the PNTC series) of options that have been suggested, where he concludes that Nicodemus is simply “speaking for at least some of the Pharisees or members of the Jewish ruling council who were in essential agreement with him.” (Though he also suggests the “we” may contain a hint of either “swagger or nervousness” I don’t think it’s necessary to read either into it; it seems to me that we have all the info in 3:1 and the larger context to understand the “we” in 3:2, without necessarily inferring any degree of elitism as you suggest.) Consequently, it seems, the 2PP in 3:12 simply refers to Jesus’ public teaching which included the same groups whom Nicodemus represents. (The more intriguing pronoun is the 1PP in 3:11; but I’ll leave that to you since you didn’t ask about it:)

    Acts 5:30 also seems pretty contextually self-evident; a 2PP in Greek doesn’t necessarily mean every single last person in the audience any more than it does in English. From the Gospels we know who was humanly responsible for Jesus’ death; it was the same Jewish leadership Nicodemus represented in Jn. 3:1. We know that didn’t include every last one of them; but the 2PP is simply addressing generically the leadership who was now opposing them just as it had opposed Jesus.

    I hope that answers your questions adequately and that I haven’t missed anything else you were aiming at.

    Blessings,
    LT

  4. I support you lower case “he” and his asterisking “you”.

    I get that one does want to communicate meaning but for Job I would likewise suggest a footnote. One concern I have is that captilisation forces a decision. Do we captilise Jesus the man? What if it is not clear whether Jesus or another is meant in the Greek. What about prophecy? Do we have to determine something is Messianic? Could David be talking about himself and it be prophetic by analogy rather than direct? I think that for all the examples where God is clear in the Hebrew (thus He), English readers will see he or He and be convinced that Hebrew is more certain than it is.

    As for “you” I think the converse. The distinction is really there (whether it is meaningful or not is another issue). I favour you* plural and you† singular and possibly you when not translating “you” (eg. he or they). Using superscripts will mean that they are less distracting. I think other words such as “who” which are both singular and plural (but not so in English) could be likewise labelled.

  5. Duncan, real quick at the end of a long day—I tend to think that even a functionally equivalent translation would generally want to keep direct address to God as direct address to God. So they wouldn’t want to go third-person. They might go “You, God, will plunge me into a pit.” That seems like a tool worth having in one’s translation toolbox.

  6. Someone told me that I might be the referent to the “Bible translator friend” mentioned in Mark’s comment above, so I’ll add my thoughts as a translation consultant at Bibles International… As one of our “quality checks” at the end of a NT translation project (i.e., after the entire text has been translated), we go through every verse in the NT that has an unexpected change from a 2S to a 2P or vice versa. Here is the verse list:

    Mat 5:23-48–pattern of switching from 2P to 2S throughout
    Mat 6:2, 9
    Mat 11:21, 24
    Mat 12:36
    Mat 15:2
    Mat 16:19
    Mat 17:24
    Mat 18:16
    Mat. 23:27
    Mat 26:64
    Mk 8:29
    Luk 4:23
    Luk 9:41
    Luk 10:13
    Luk 13:34
    Luk 17:3
    Luk 22:31, 67, 70
    Jn 1:50
    Jn 3:7, 11
    Jn 4:19
    Jn 8:25
    Jn 14:9
    Act 3:25
    Act 5:9
    Act 25:26
    Rom 14:15
    1Co 12:21
    Gal 6:1
    2Ti 4:22
    Tit 3:15
    Phm 1:21
    2Jo 1:12
    Rev 2:10

    For OT projects, we have a quality check that checks places where the 2nd pers pron changes from masculine to feminine or singular to plural in potentially unexpected ways:

    Ruth 3:9
    Jer 2:27
    Jer 36:19
    Ezek 13:20
    Ezek 34:31

    I have worked with 16 different languages so far, and I did a sampling of a handful of them just now to see what they do with personal pronouns, and I see different words for 2S and 2P. In Haitian Creole, with which I’ve worked extensively, they have only 1 word for both the 1st pers plu and 2nd pers plu–nou. In most places, the context makes it clear who the referents are, but in 2 Corinthians the Haitian Creole committee decided to use all capitals for one and not the other. I am in favor of such marking where the passage would otherwise be ambiguous, or worse, misunderstood. Another way to mark such things is by footnotes.

    In our projects we also have to pay attention to we (exclusive) and we (inclusive). We mark that in a tool that we give to the translators, in case their language makes that distinction. For the few languages of the 16 with which I’ve worked extensively, they have no gender marking for their pronouns. This sure puts light on the gender-inclusive controversy that was raging a number of years ago.

    Regarding capitalizing pronouns referring to deity, we tend to discourage our translators from doing that, since we regard it as a matter of interpretation, not a matter of grammar or linguistics. In most cases, the referent is quite clear, so there’s no need to capitalize. In some cases it’s as clear but yet a capital would make it clear. But in a few places it’s not clear at all, and our use of a capital would involve an interpretational decision, we try to avoid as much as possible. In addition, we deal with languages whose morphology makes the capitalization convention nearly impossible. If the pronoun is actually an affix attached to a verb, it would look quite odd to have a capital letter in the middle of a word. However, I will add that if the local church in the language group, which we are serving, strongly insists on capitals for pronouns referring to deity, then we allow them to do it. Such is the case for the language I’m working with in Eurasia, because they want to follow the Russian Bible conventions.

    Now to that question of whether a maturing church would benefit from both a modified-literal translation (which Bibles International produces) and a functionally equivalent translation (which most other Bible societies produce), I would say that if I could be confident that the church was mature enough to handle both, then I could see the value. The problem we have at BI is that we usually deal with churches that are not mature, which is directly related to the reason why we are helping them get a Bible translation into their language. Such churches that we work with would probably not be able to recognize a functionally equivalent translation, which inserts many more interpretational opinions than a modified-literal one, as being just a possible way to render the passage. Instead, since it’s in their Bible, they would think that it is the inspired meaning from God. For this reason, I lean away from letting them have both. Of course, saying “letting them have” implies that I am in charge of such things, and I’m definitely not. If another Bible society wants to produce a functionally equivalent translation for the same language group, or if they have already done so before us (as has happened with the Haitian Creole), then I comfort myself by noting the complementary value of two different types of translations. Many churches in Haiti can probably handle two types of translations, though the few churches I’ve been in that are mature prefer the French Bible even over the BI translation. (Our translation is primarily for churches outside the big city centers where French knowledge is much lower.)

  7. Hey Mark, thanks for interacting with my question so long ago. I forgot to come back and check until today. I like your hypothetical solution better than my hypothetical solution quite a bit in that case.

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