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Should We Capitalize Divine Pronouns?

I am often asked why the ESV and NIV don’t capitalize “divine pronouns,” pronouns referring to God. For example, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10, NASB).

There seems to be at least four reasons why not.

1. The originals did not mark divine pronouns. Hebrew letters are all the same height (אבגד), and the original Greek manuscripts would have been all capitals (ΑΒΓΔ), or what is called majuscules (uncials are a form of majuscules). Capitalizing what we believe to be divine pronouns adds an extra layer of interpretation on the translation, something translators shy away from (some more than others).

2. Capitalizing divine pronouns is a recent and sporadic practice. You don’t find it in the KJV (1611), the ASV (1901), or the RSV (1952). It appears that the first translation to do so was the NASB (1971, 1995). I do not have a copy of the original 1960 version of the NASB but I assume the 1971 is following the same style. (Can someone confirm this for me?) The NKJV (1982) also capitalizes divine pronouns. The HCSB (1999) did capitalize divine pronouns, but the practice was stopped in the CBS revision (2017). In other words, there is no real historical precedence as to why this practice should be followed.

The Facebook group on translations have pointed out that some relatively unknown translations do capititalize divine pronouns: Francis Kenrick (1860s); Concordant Version (1927); Francis Spencer (1937); and as you might expect, the Amplified Bible (1954). But none of these determine precedence.

3. No English stylesheet says to do this. While the Chicago Manual of Style does not tell me how to respect God, their styles (and others like them) are important to follow.

4. Why is capitalization a sign of respect? We capitalize proper names and specific places and things not out of respect but for the sake of clarity of identification. It seems to me to be artificial to assign “respect” to a stylesheet. Why not all caps? Wouldn’t that be even more respectful? Italics? Bold and italic? Red ink? You get the point.

It is interesting that “heaven” and “hell” are generally not capitalized by most publishers’ stylesheets when the rule says that the names of people (“bill” vs.”Bill”), specific places (“north” vs. “North Pole”) and things (e.g., “bridge” vs. “Brooklyn Bridge”) should be capitalized (see www.scribendi.com).

For me the primary argument is that the original Hebrew and Greek did not distinguish pronouns referring to God from other words, and so it would be improper for us to add an additional layer of interpretation onto the text.

Comments

An interesting corollary question is whether "father" and "son" always should be capitalized when referring to God? Should these words be treated as proper names or something else? I ask because in my (non-english language) Bible translation these words are more often than not written with a small first letter, e.g. "God the father", "God's son", "the son of God" etc. And what about the Spirit, is he holy or Holy?

I think Father and Son are capitalized because they function as a proper name. But an interesting point.

RE: improper for us to add an additional layer of interpretation onto the text. In the last Paragraph this statement is mentioned. While that is a commendable goal, the consistent policy with English Bibles has been to not transliterate the tetragram but use a substitute word and to put it in all capitals. (Spanish versions usually uses a form of God's name as does the ASV consistently) This is far removed from the original Hebrew. Names are generally transcribed or transliterated not replaced with a different term. Next, since most English translators do not distinguished between YHWH and adonai (render both "lord," then it was determined to use the expression LORD. Why all capitals? This is a classic example of removing and adding a great interpretation. Here it is not just the first letter but the whole WORD.

I think Bibles use small caps (not all caps) when it is YHWH. I don't recall Adonai being referenced this way.

Since I have been capitalizing pronouns that refer to God, etc. for over 40 years when I write, it is nearly impossible for me to change because deep down I feel it shows respect. But with a translation or with others writings, I am fine with the pronouns not being capitalized. But I still want to know why NT Wright in His translation of Matthew 28:19, he does not capitalize Father, Son , and Holy Spirit.

Hello Bill, Two quick points: I have an 1963 NASB and a 1977 edition and they capitalize pronouns for deity. "CBS" should be CSB.

Ah the joys to auto correction.

Dr. M., If I follow your argument in 1 above, then shouldn’t these translators also shy away from changing pronouns in the text to the specific noun? I know the NET does this frequently, especially when the pronoun, in English might be ambiguous. I would think that capitalization of pronouns related to God is another means of clarifying. Tim

Is it improper to put additional layer of interpretation if the Hebrew and Greek did not distinguish pronouns? How about if this generation suddenly realised giving due respect to God by capitalising it?
Bill Mounce