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.
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,
Layton Talbert, PhD Professor of Theology & Biblical Exposition
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?
“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.
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…
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.
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.