Capitalizing Pronouns Referring to Deity
Note: I have written a somewhat lengthier and more definitive post on this topic for the Logos Bible Software blog.
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, at least for published writing (I don’t wish to police others’ private correspondence). And I’m beyond doubt when it comes to other pronouns in published material. 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:
- By capitalizing “Who” we are making Moses imply that he already knows the answer to his question!
- 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 Zondervan’s 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.