Divine Capitalization

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Many people consider it an article of faith that you should capitalize every word that could possibly be related to God. Those who don't think about it much will just capitalize the personal pronouns. Occasionally it extends to adjectives (e.g. "God is a Holy God.") Sometimes adverbs, nouns referring to divine attributes, or even verbs join in the fun. For a spoof on this, see this piece at The Holy Observer.

I don't even capitalize divine pronouns, and I have very specific reasons. It's not out of lack of reverence for God. My reasons are largely biblical ones. The Bible doesn't say not to capitalize these words (though it doesn't say we should do so either). It does fail to capitalize them itself, at least in the original manuscripts (except when it capitalizes every letter). Hebrew doesn't have a distinction between capitals and lowercase, and Aramaic uses the same alphabet (I think). Greek does have the distinction, but the New Testament manuscripts are either all caps or all lowercase.

So the Bible itself doesn't capitalize divine pronouns, though some translations do. This itself creates a problem, though. What if a passage is ambiguous about whether it's referring to God or a mere human being? This isn't common, but the lack of capitalization in the original creates this possibility, and it does occur. More common in when a passage about kingship in the Old Testament refers first of all to a human king (or other type of Christ) or ideal kingship and then in an extended sense to the Messiah. Should you then capitalize the pronoun?

Some people try resolve this by not capitalizing pronouns when it's unclear but doing so when it's clear, but this makes an interpretation already, since the reader will take it as a mere human reference. Another try is to capitalize pronouns for God the Father but not for Christ, since most of the references are those fuzzy Messianic references. This creates two problems. One is the fact that some passages are hard to tell whether the references is to God or to a mere human (and some are hard to tell whether God the Father or Jesus Christ). The second problem is that this starts to make Jesus look less deserving of reverence, since the point of capitalizing was to convey reverence.

So I say we should do what the biblical authors did. We should follow ordinary capitalization conventions for our language. We should capitalize at the beginning of sentences, since that's what we do in English, and we should capitalize proper names. Other letters are lower case for the most part.

It's important to capitalize the word 'God', though. Many of my students don't do it, and it's one of my biggest pet peeves. Proper names should be capitalized no matter what sort of thing they name. I have an Ibanez guitar named Omar, an Ovation acoustic-electric named Selah, a keyboard named Vinnie, a fretless bass named Frank, and short-scale bass named Nimrod. (I guess I haven't named my djembe, my organ, or my Les Paul yet, though the latter was my brother's, and he might have had a name for it.) I once had a car named George and then one named Oscar (but no name for the current minivan). I capitalize those names.

I think students will talk about God and then think that they might not believe in him (or don't want to offend people with alternate conceptions of God), so they think somehow that means they shouldn't capitalize the name, since you don't capitalize the word 'god' when using it as a common noun. But it doesn't matter if God exists if you're using the term as a name. We capitalize the names of Spiderman, Gandalf, and James T. Kirk, even though they don't exist. So even those who don't believe in God should capitalize his name.

13 Comments

I've tried to be relatively consistent in distinguishing between a god and the God I believe in. I think when we talk about the 'gods of basketball' smiling down on the Pistons for the time being, it is appropriate to leave it lowercase. But also when talking about the Christian idea of the triune god in the abstract such as in this sentence it makes sense not to deify it with caps. But if I were quoting liturgy or a prayer, then I think caps would be appropriate.

I think that's grammatically ok, since you're talking about the god, as in a particular one, and that can easily be seen as a common noun and not a proper noun. You're giving a description, in other words. The god of Christianity is also named God. The grammatical argument doesn't work against that. It seems funny to me, but my arguments against capitalization should make me want to agree with this usage, so I'll have to think about it more. Biblical scholar N.T. Wright has the same practice you have, by the way. (I wonder if you could think of it as both a name and a description, as may be the case with 'the Pistons' above.)

Now that I've had a chance to think about this again, I think 'the triune god' could go either way. There are ways to use both common and proper nouns with a similar grammatical structure (i.e. definite article, adjective, and proper name):

The redoubtable king of Gondor pressed forward against his enemies.

The redoubtable Aragorn pressed forward against his enemies.

So it doesn't seem to me that either 'the triune god' or 'the triune God' would necessarily be grammatically wrong. It seems to me that when you're comparing belief in different gods and trying to remain neutral about the status or existence of those gods, you should use lowercase. This is what N.T. Wright do. I think it's what Paul would have done in Acts 17 (the unknown god) if he were writing it in today's English.

On the other hand, when I give a defense of Christianity and at some point say "If there is a God, and God has spoken to us in scripture..." I'm not doing the same thing. I'm talking about God and assuming his existence and the existence of no other gods for the sake of argument, and I'm seeing what follows. When I say "If there is a God" I'm using expression that in another context could be written "If there is a god", but I'm not just talking about any god. I'm talking about God. It would be like saying "If there is a Santa Claus..." where 'Santa Claus' is a proper name.

I've always capitalised personal pronouns referring to God, if for no other reason than to distinguish them. However, I capitalise Satan too... after all, that's his name!

"Hebrew doesn't have a distinction between capitals and lowercase, and Aramaic uses the same alphabet (I think). Greek does have the distinction, but the New Testament manuscripts are either all caps or all lowercase."

How could I verify this?

Here's a site about case distinctions in various languages that mentions the lack of capital and lowercase in Hebrew. it also mentions that the Greek lowercase didn't exist until about the 7th century, long after the Bible was completed. Here's a site about the Hebrew alphabet that mentions that it doen't have capital and lowercase letters. An apologetics discussion about why we should trust the New Testament texts mentions that all the original manuscripts were all caps (look in the section on why we can trust that we have what the apostles wrote). I hope that's enough to give you a sense how well-known this is among people who know the languages.

In searching for the site in the previous comment, I found this discussion at IMAO about whether you should capitalize plural pronouns when God is included in a group. The discussion gets really irreverent very quickly, but the issue is important if you take the view I was arguing against in this post. I can just say the same thing I've been saying, of course. The view I've been arguing against has this further problem to deal with.

I believe that all entities or beings that are worshipped or venerated apart from what I believe to be the one true God (Yahweh) are all 'lesser gods', therefore, anything 'lesser' should not be capitalized.

But, I also believe that since Jesus (Yahshua) states in the Gospel of John, "I & the Father are one, if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father"... that Jesus (Yahshua) should be capitalized too. Otherwise, one IS treating Jesus' or Yahshua's name like it is less deserving of reverence, all pronouns aside & just focusing strictly on God's proper name & His only Begotten Son's proper name.

I realize that Satan ('Hasatan' in Hebrew or Lucifer in another tongue) is the proper name given the enemy of God (for some reason 'the devil' doesn't seem as proper to me), but because his power is so limited compared to God's & because his sole aim is to destroy all of us created in God's (Yahweh's) image, he is not deserving or even remotely worthy of his name being capitalized, in my personal opinion. LOL.

He is the purest form of hatred & most practiced agent of death a mere human being (or more accurately, 'living soul') could ever not hope to tango with. He is not just the pond scum, he is the fungus that feeds on the pond scum. I apologize for the visual... but I think it gets the point across.

Joli, any proper name should be capitalized. So of course Jesus' name should be. The term 'the devil' is not grammatically a proper name, although sometimes it functions as one (and should then be capitalized, as is also the case with 'The Antichrist' when being used as a proper name).

I notice that you did capitalize your own name and Satan's while saying that Satan doesn't deserve his name to be capitalized. I'm not sure what's going on there.

I capitalized 'Satan' because in the sentence I used the word 'Satan' in I was referring to his name in the context of it being capitalized as though it were a proper name. That is the same reason I capitalized 'Hasatan' & 'Lucifer' as well. But when I was referring to 'the devil' I did not use 'CAPS' because I was referring to his name as not seeming proper to me. Please note too that I said what I said making it clear at the end it was just my 'personal opinion.' I know my personal opinion is not going to cause a paradigm shift to occur in the English language as we know it. LOL. I just don't like evil. But I'm not sure what you meant by intimating that me capitalizing my own name is incongruous with me not thinking 'satan' deserves to have his name be capitalized. Dare I even ask? I think I will just leave 'well enough' alone on that one. It was not my intent to get anyone's 'back up.' Pardon all the trite cliches & over use of apostrophes or should I say... "quotastrophes?"

I am desperately seeking not 'Susan' but any kind of authoritative, exhaustive guide on what should be capitalized in religious writings & what shouldn't be... whether it be pronouns for God (Yahweh/Elohim/Hashem) or pronouns for God's Son (Yahshua, Y'shua, Yahoshua, Jesus, Emmanuel, Yeshua, etc.,) OR whether it be anything that could have any kind of 'holy' or 'righteous' connotation. The reason I am in DIRE need of such a resource is because currently this one guy's book I am proofreading & editing... suffice it to say, he goes off the DEEP END capitalizing anything that has a 'holy' connotation whether it be a religious FEAST or FESTIVAL day that both Orthodox & Messianic Jews alike celebrate or whether it just be a word like 'baptized.' I realize one does not capitalize words like baptized... but that is a more black & white example. I am needing an authoritative guide for the GRAY areas. HELP! I am on the verge of pulling out large chunks of my own hair. It's like that saying "Too many notes..." There is such a thing as "too much capitalization!" More like, "too many WRONG notes..."

My point was that English capitalization rules aren't about who deserves to be capitalized but whether it's a proper name or common noun. I was simply pointing out that you followed this rule yourself, so your stated rule wasn't the one you actually used.

I doubt you're going to find an authoritative source that simply sets the rules. Such sources at best observe the phenomenon of language and report it. Since people disagree on what they're observing, or because the phenomena are more important than such observers realize, you might find different sources disagreeing. Whether to capitalize pronouns for a divine being is one of these areas of disagreement, since different people have different practices.

The most common sources for style, grammar, and usage are actually pretty poor about getting the phenomena right, usually just making up rules that they complain about people never following, when the rules have never been followed. Language prescriptivists claim some phenomena (e.g. the singular 'they') is new and wrong, when the same people they would recommend as models of good English (e.g. Jane Austen, Shakespeare, the King James Version of the Bible) have no problem with doing it.

Most Bible translations use lower case divine personal pronouns (the only exceptions I could find were the New American Standard Bible and the New King James Version, and the Clear Word paraphrase by Blanco). However, most modern Christian writers use the upper case pronouns for divinity - some authors even capitalising them in direct quotations from the Bible! We switched to upper case (apart from Bible quotations) at the start of this year. Haven't had any problems with ambiguity that we haven't yet been able to resolve to our satisfaction.

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