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

Review: A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir

A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological MemoirA Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir by Thomas C. Oden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What strongly conservative Christian doesn’t thrill to hear a conversion story from theological liberalism—and from an elite academic within that crowd, no less? Thomas Oden, who studied under H. Richard Niebuhr at Yale, most definitely rejects the liberalism he so ardently pursued during his formative educational years, up till age 40. Oden, a constitutionally nice man, reserves the most (the only?) intense criticisms in his autobiography for theological and other liberals (and, in this case, a few evangelical enablers):

The evangelicals had been promised a seat at the table [at the World Council of Churches meeting] in Canberra, but then were ignored and represented only by the evangelical house pets of Genevan ecumenism.

Ouch. The gentle Oden is not against a tiny bit of name-calling when the situation warrants:

The New Age movement of the late 1960s was for me exhilarating. It came as swiftly as it disappeared. The Green Revolution and the heyday of the Human Potential movement moved at top speed. Everyone was talking about peak experiencing and self-actualization. The air was fueled by the revolutionary passions of the sixties, Vietnam, situational ethics, the new morality, sexual experimentation and anti-parent spleen.

But I’ve begun this little review with two exceptions in order to highlight the rule. Mostly, Oden is straightforward and, I come back to that word, gentle.

His chapter on his move from that liberal world to a theologically conservative one gives honor where it’s due, is appropriately self-deprecating, and it straightforwardly critiques theological liberalism. It was the best part of the book—though the entire thing was surely readable and interesting. The pith of his story is that a Jewish scholar who’d gone through his own liberal, Marxist, Freudian rumpsringa as a youth, challenged 40-year-old Oden around 1970: “You don’t know your own tradition well enough to reject it until you read the fathers.” He did, and the “consensual Christian tradition” he discovered there changed his theology, his life, and his heart. I rejoice.

But I’m puzzled.

Alex Stroshine’s review on Goodreads is quite good, but I want to quote it (and use a portion in a way he likely didn’t intend) to explain my puzzlement:

I see a lot of merit to the classic Christian consensus and Oden has ably demonstrated how the churches emerging out of the Reformation are in line with this consensus despite assertions to the contrary by some. But I wish I could find some greater clarification on theological specifics and Oden’s methodology for dealing with them. Oden is a supporter of women’s ordination (as am I!) and while there is solid evidence that women DID have leadership roles (Phoebe was the first exegete of the Epistle to the Romans and there is evidence of female deacons) how does classic Christianity deal with disputes such as women’s ordination? Also, while the conciliar process seeks orthodoxy through agreement by both laity and clergy, what happens when the LAITY (unlike the liberal clergy that plague the mainline) err, as in the laity’s excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary?

Indeed. It’s a good thing that Oden recovered the fathers, and given the popularity of the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (and its publication by an evangelical house after others passed it up) evangelicals appear to have been as excited than anyone that Oden did the following:

I began searching for a more reliable grounding for the study of sacred texts. That grounding came only when I recognized the reasonableness of the ancient consensual Christian tradition. It had a more reliable critical method based on historic consensus, which implies centuries of human experience. It had remained surprisingly stable while passing through innumerable cultures for two millennia.

This is characteristic Oden. Throughout the book he asserts, with little apparent concern over the Sic et Non among the fathers, that there is a consensual Christian tradition. He reminds me of a Catholic priest I heard many years ago at Furman University. Weaving the fingers of his two hands together over and over, he kept asserting, as if his hand motions could make it so, that “scripture and tradition cohere.”

And I’m puzzled how such a smart man as Oden could perpetuate such a notion. He does, helpfully, point to “Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great” as the fathers “most consensually remembered, who most accurately gave expression to the faith that was already well understood by the apostles and celebrated by the worshiping community under the guidance of the written Word.” But even that phrase—”most accurately gave expression”—begs the question. Who says? Oden does acknowledge that the fathers didn’t always agree:

Whenever I came upon those points where it seemed that the apostolic consensus had lost its way or broken up irretrievably, I discovered that by looking more deeply into the most consensual interpreters of the sacred text, the truth proved itself to be self-correcting under the guidance of the Spirit. That premise, that the Holy Spirit sustained the right memory of the truth revealed in history, was to me counterintuitive at every step. Yet the constant course correction of the community was the most remarkable aspect of the history of ecumenical consent.

Personally, whenever I’ve dipped into the Ancient Christian Commentary Series, I find some stimulating stuff, yes, but also odd stuff. It’s a mix. Some of what I read is unbelievably fresh, and a lot of it causes headscratching. Here’s what I saw on the comments on Genesis 4, for example:

  • Ephrem the Syrian makes up several details that aren’t in the text of Scripture: he says God sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s; he says, too, that Cain didn’t give of the best of his grain and fruit.
  • Origen offers an interpretation people still generally take today, that Cain’s sin began before the offering.
  • Chrysostom makes an insightful point linking God’s curse of the serpent in Genesis 3 and His curse of Cain in Genesis 4.
  • Chrysostom says there was no sexual intercourse before the fall (!).

I just don’t see any good reason to invest special authority in these men. Some of their opinions are well-founded, and surely some of the fathers are astoundingly brilliant. Augustine is a world-historical figure for good reason. I also believe that C.S. Lewis is right when he suggests that modern readers should let the breeze of another century blow through their minds on a regular basis. But that point from Chrysostom is greatly significant: if God didn’t create sex; if even monogamous heterosexual unions are a result of the fall, then we’re in a mess. Where’s our consensus? Is Chrysostom right or wrong, and how do we know?

If Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism are both heirs of a largely healthy Christian tradition, and I think we are, there’s only one way to find out for sure which groups (and which subgroups) are more faithful heirs—go to the Bible. And that’s what this biography lacked. I read it mostly on long flights, so I may have zoned out, but I recall almost no Bible quotations, and certainly no careful discussions of biblical teaching. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and Oden’s partly justified excitement about the tradition manages to obscure rather than cohere with Scripture.

At key points, I was practically begging for Bible:

When some in these groups wanted to leave these [hyper-liberal mainline] denominations, I tried to provide plausible reasons for why they would do better to stay and fight for their reform. To flee a church is not to discipline it. Discipline is fostered by patient trust, corrective love and the willingness to live with incremental change insofar as conscience allows. An exit strategy is tempting but self-defeating, since it forgets about the faithful generations who have given sacrificially to build those churches. It would be a dishonor to them to abandon the church to those with aberrant faith.

God has some things to say about this in Scripture. “Strengthen what remains,” yes. But also “Mark them which cause division and strifes among you contrary to the doctrine which we have preached.” The job of a theologian should first be to find a way to faithfully use the Bible to answer our questions. If the tradition helps, that’s wonderful. If it muddies the waters or positively contradicts the Bible, then the Bible must remain our norming norm. That’s what sola scriptura means.

I first heard of Oden in the 1990s when he was a signatory of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together documents. Oden’s book amply demonstrates that there are things to be learned from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’m with R.C. Sproul and the Reformers in seeing a fundamental disjunction between formal Catholic (and Orthodox) teaching and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Oden does define what a Christian is:

I have discovered that I belong to a vast family of orthodox Christian believers of all times and places, which includes historic Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Christian family is far wider, broader and deeper than most of us have commonly thought of it as being. Those who can recite the Apostles’ Creed with full integrity of conviction and live out Christian moral norms, as well as worship in spirit and truth, are all part of a classic consensual family of faith.

Both belief and practice are included in his definition, and biblically speaking I think that’s good. My own evangelical tradition isn’t free of people whose orthodoxy and orthopraxy are questionable (sometimes my own is!). But after hundreds of conversations with Roman Catholics over the years, some of them in places around the world; and after a number of visits to Catholic churches and Catholic blogs and magazines (the stimulating First Things preeminent among them), I’m puzzled. There’s a lot of disagreement there. No, formal Catholic doctrine does not teach pure Pelagianism, but they do a pretty terrible job of informing the laity of that fact, as I’m sure many Catholics will agree. What does that fact say?

In order for Oden to see evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics as part of a “vast family,” he has to be skilled in (gently) papering over deep differences. My going hypothesis after reading this biography is that this papering has been his modus operandi in his academic work and professional life for decades.

Review: Golly’s Folly: The Prince Who Wanted It All

Golly's Folly: The Prince Who Wanted It AllGolly’s Folly: The Prince Who Wanted It All by Eleazar Ruiz
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Golly’s Folly is the work of two brothers and the wife of one of those brothers. It is an artful take on several biblical themes, coupled with richly colorful and imaginative illustrations.

Golly is the son of King Zhor, and because he envies his father’s glory he asks for his father’s crown. This is the prodigal son demanding his inheritance, the fool who thinks a crown brings glory instead of symbolizing it.

And at first it seems Golly’s Folly will take a standard route “modernizing” Jesus’ parable (though in this case “modern” would refer to some unstated point in the Middle Ages among excessively brawny Vikings). But the story quickly takes an unexpected turn by recourse to a different scriptural theme—that of the vanity of life even among the rich and successful. This is Solomon, the son of a great king who inherits unbelievable treasure, achieves incredible wisdom, and still must conclude that life is vanity under the sun.

Golly discovers that vanity, and humbly (and believably) discovers a solution to it by the end of the book. Instead of laying up his treasures on earth, Golly perceives the all-importance of love.

This reviewer wondered whether “Golly,” “Zhor,” and the name of their steward had any significance—no, the author said in a private conversation, they are simply fun words (and therefore, incidentally, Golly is not a “minced oath”).

The book is made with excellent quality and attention to detail under an imprint—Patrol Books—created by the authors. The illustrations are both contemporary and evocative of a textured, purposefully two-dimensional 1960s style that will interest children visually. It may possibly be read as an anodyne addition to the picture book genre by readers who do not grasp the biblical themes which underlie the story and give it its true depth. It is recommended, therefore, that teachers and parents discuss the story with any kids who happen to hear it.

This review originally appeared in the Christian Library Journal and is used by permission.