Capitalizing Pronouns Referring to Deity

by Apr 9, 2012ChurchLife, Linguistics, NTScholarship36 comments

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:

  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 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.

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  1. Jason Button

    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. Jeremy Patterson

    Is there a Manifesto Against the Capitalization of Pronouns in Reference to Deity that I could sign? It was time someone blogged about this.

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      I’m on the verge of becoming the Blogger Who Cried Manifesto after just one manifesto. I dare not add another, though it sure is tempting!

  3. Jeremy Patterson

    True. Maybe you should come up with The Catch-All Manifesto. Or the Manifesto for Sanity in Language and Typography.

  4. CharlieJ

    I vote no to capitalizing pronouns, yes to capitalizing the noun Trinity.

    • Mark L Ward Jr
      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.

  5. Keith Duff

    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.

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      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.

  6. ericjvanbruggen

    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.

  7. Richard H.

    I am 71 yrs of age. My schooling was far different than that of today and I was taught that the English language and proper use of it dictated that that all proper pronouns be capitalized. I would greatly appreciate information on where I might get a KJV that capitalizes proper pronouns.

    • Mark Ward

      As far as I know, no such thing exists. There are multiple updates of the KJV, and they may capitalize pronouns referring to deity. But no one has changed the KJV thus far and no farther.

  8. Donnie Manis

    You seem to have danced around one of the biggest reasons without saying it. In several messianic prophecies there is a clear double meaning. The text is, in these cases, referring to an immediate person (e.g., David) and also to the future coming of the Messiah. So capitalizing it takes away one of the intended meanings. It also makes it an interpretation rather than a translation.

    • Mark Ward

      Excellent point. I may just add this into the post.

  9. Debi Snider

    Thank you for supplying this post. Very helpful

  10. remadepreacher

    Capitalizing pronouns for God used to be the norm in the churches I grew up in. Now, it seems all newer translations have dropped this practice with the exception of the NASB and New King James. We used the NASB when I got to college and I got used to the capitalization. When the NIV came out, I appreciated the lack of thees and thous and more modern language and did not think much about the change in capitalizing pronouns. But later my desire to encourage the church to keep awe and respect for God brought me back to the practice. Offsetting this is the desire to show he is approachable, our Abba, Papa and the desire not to confuse or alienate younger generations. These have brought me back to un-capitalizing them. This ambivalence has caused my practice to switch a few times while writing my 1st book, Remade! A preacher find victory over pornography and sin. Currently they are capitalized. After reading this, however, I think I am about to change them again. One good reason is I mostly quote from the ESV. I have changed the pronouns in them but am now feeling I do not have that right.

  11. Daniel

    Actually, the practice of capitalizing words referring to God is a recent thing, historically speaking. Read the “real” old writers sometime–Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, etc.–and you’ll find that they don’t follow our modern practice.

    • Mark Ward

      A great point!

  12. David Coffin

    Sorry to be so late in posting this in reference to the capitalization of pronouns referring to Deity. One of the things that I have recently though about that may be similar in nature, while not specifically the exact same thing. Why do many Bibles in the new testament have the words of our Lord in red (The red letter editions) but no Bible I have come across has the words of God highlighted or uses color type in any way. Just curious

  13. Mark Ward

    David: tradition. =)

  14. Travis Smith of Bexar

    Dr. Ward, I stumbled upon this post when looking for discussions regarding the conventions of modern Biblical orthography, and anything known about the changes that have led to those conventions historically. Your post is succinct and approachable, but I have to ask to be allowed two small nitpicks regarding the ‘two interesting problems’ you see with your second example of unwieldy capitalization.

    1. ‘By capitalizing “Who” we are making Moses imply that he already knows the answer to his question!’ No, we aren’t. In the first clause of the example sentence, Moses says ‘Well, even if I did go…’, suggesting he doesn’t have a concrete plan on following through, or at least not a solid intention on carrying out any concrete plan he might have. By saying ‘even if’ Moses, like all of us, is speaking hypothetically, indicating he considers what he’s saying to be somehow removed from reality (however slightly). Seen in this way, I think it’s something of a stretch to suss out certainty (‘he already knows…’) from capitalizing the relative pronoun (‘Who’). Moses is saying – at a level removed from immediate, objective reality – something more like ‘I could do this thing, hypothetically, but then I would have to explain, hypothetically, that I do it because a hypothetical being (the ‘Who’ here) has told me to. Tell me more about that hypothetical being.’

    If anything, I reckon that when Moses uses that hypothetical hedge (‘Well, even if I did go…’) he is communicating to whoever or whatever he’s talking to that he’s not yet at a place where he’s certain (where he ‘already knows’) of anything about its nature or character, which should imply to us, reading his quoted speech, that he was leaning towards accepting its claims but had some doubt, reservation, suspicion, trepidation, apprehension, etc. (Substitute any antonym of ‘certainty’ you prefer here.)

    2. ‘By capitalizing “Your” we’re also attributing some sort of intentionality to Moses, something that can put us on dangerous mind-reading ground.’ While I think my argument in the above nitpick applies equally well here (long story short, Moses is being tactful while not committing to anything *just yet*), that Moses eventually went on to believe the claims of whatever was talking to him up there, and carry out its instructions, and the subsequent stature Moses takes among the great men and women of the Bible, suggest that capitalizing ‘Your’ in this situation is most consistent with how Moses actually felt at the time (or very soon thereafter) and reflects, more or less faithfully, his importance and position in the Biblical narrative.
    Your example of the Pharisees’ quoted speech, wherein the authors in certain orthographic traditions capitalize *any* pronoun referring to Jesus, actually bolsters this argument. The Pharisees DID NOT believe in the divinity of Jesus, and we’re on pretty stable ground when we say they probably weren’t iffy about it. Further, they are singular in the collective sense, but plural in the personal sense. When we get onto ‘dangerous mind-reading ground’ with your Moses example, we are going there with one man, highly revered in the tradition, and about whom, particularly, much is written and read. When we go to the same risky place with the Pharisees, we hazard ‘brushing with broad strokes’ and lumping a basket of individual, distinct ideas – held by however many Pharisees there actually were – into a singular opinion of the group as a whole that, frankly, may not have been as united as presented in the text.

    What I mean by all this is that your example of capitalizing ‘Your’ in the quoted speech of the Pharisees is a good one, if we’re trying to show why it’s probably wrong *in that context*, but given the different number of Moses and the Pharisees (one is an individual, the other is a group of them) and the natures of their respective relationships to the divinity in the text (one is a prominent protagonist, the other is a nebulous antagonist) we should deduce that capitalizing ‘Your’ when Moses is speaking in Exodus *should be done*. I know I’m splitting the finest of hairs here, but I reckon that second example is a bad one, as far it goes, when trying to get your point across.

    I mean, I consider myself to decently intelligent, and I think I’m better read than the average gorilla on the street, but while I could prattle on for ages about Moses, his historicity and historiography, I can’t name a single Pharisee individually, and in fact I don’t know if *anyone* knows for sure what their names were (‘who’ they actually were, to bring the relative pronoun motif full circle…).

    Again, kudos on the post generally, and all apologies for any needling that might come across in the two above points. None was intended; I only meant to point out.


  15. Lorraine W. Sutherland

    Should we defer to Pharisees preferences when recording the Word of God?
    Whether they knew it or not, they were referring to Him.

    “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.”

    Should we adopt inside the church, and “conform” to what is “common” and “recognized as contemporary” outside the church, by “many religious…and most general publishers” a standard for publishing “The Word made flesh?”

    For me, it is a matter of distinction and reverence.

  16. Brian Kelly

    Tuesday 16 January 2018

    A brand-new reader in Oklahoma joins in…

    Many valid points from those above, he sees…

    Yet it is the poster of 20 November 2017 who best summarizes “The Question” of why and when to capitalize.

    Lorraine W. Sutherland summarizes her point with two words.

    Two words which describe my thoughts precisely: “distinction and reverence.”

    Thank you, Lorraine!

    • Mark Ward

      So here’s a question: how can we know that caps will communicate those things? How do we know what they’re communicating?

  17. Sasha Adkins

    My dear Sir !
    In your well- meaning but flaccid arguments against capitalized pronouns for Our Lord you have forgotten a very basic fact : the Authorship of the Bible.
    Surely, He knows Who He is.

    • Mark Ward

      Boy… I guess I deserve this. I was a little too gleeful in stirring up this hornet’s nest.

      But I wish some of the hornets would use argument rather than invective. Sigh.

  18. Pat biglane

    It don’t see a problem unless by capitalizing, the distinction between The Father and The Son is blurred.

  19. Judi Mack

    Why is the word presence capitalized, now? I’ve heard that this is an indication of the influence of the New Age movement.

    • Mark Ward

      I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but if “Presence” is capitalized in any mainstream evangelical Bible translation, I can assure you it nothing to do with the New Age Movement. In fact, as a little lamb told Wilbur the pig, it had less than nothing to do with that particular capitalization choice. Evangelical translators are not influenced by the New Age in their work.

  20. Carole Collver

    “But I wish some of the hornets would use argument rather than invective.” That statement was uncalled for. There were no “hornets” and there was nothing abusive, highly critical, or insulting said as indicated by “invective”. After reading all the comments, my conclusion is “pride went before a ‘fall'”. It seems that is what happens when Our Lord is disrespected. It is an honor to show respect and awe for Our Creator and Savior. There is no hope without Them!
    The world is having great influence on the minds of people.

  21. Mark Ward

    A very gracious reader sent me an email about this post and I responded with a little verbal disquisition. If you’re interested you can listen to it here.

  22. Angela Arden

    I find the capitalization lovely and timelessly traditional. God is not a just Our Father but He is the creator of all things and He is all powerful and all mighty and He loves us absolutely. So what’s the problem with showing Him absolute love and respect? It is my joy to do so.

    • Mark Ward

      Angela, more power to you. Follow your delight. I love your spirit.

  23. Cortney

    Capitalizing pronouns in a bible when referring to God or Jesus helps me to distinguish which “H/he” is being referred to; when it’s capitalized, I know it’s referring to either God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit- when it’s not capitalized, it can be confusing which person they’re referring to…one of the Trinity or the other person thats also a he/him/his/who.” That’s putting God/Trinity at the same “level” as the others and God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are to be held to the utmost importance and honor-therefore it’s proper (and distinguishable) to capitalize the pronouns when referring to Them (notice Them is capitalized so you know who I’m referring to…”Them” and not “them.”

    • Greg

      Maybe the author wants to leave the referent ambiguous or the translators themselves are unsure? It might make you as the reader more confident, but that confidence is not always rooted in reality.

    • Greg

      Maybe the author wants to leave the referent ambiguous or the translators themselves are unsure? It might make you as the reader more confident, but that confidence is not always rooted in reality.