Why Don’t I Capitalize Divine Pronouns?

Writing

Can Pronouns Be Divine?

A “divine pronoun” is simply a pronoun (you, he, etc.) that refers to God. Quite a few people believe we ought to capitalize such pronouns out of reverence for God. I am not one of those people.

It is not my purpose to attack those who who hold to this belief. Nor do I intend to convince you against capitalizing divine pronouns. Rather, I would just like to explain why I have chosen not to do so in my own writings.

First, capitalizing a divine pronoun has to do with grammar, not a reverence (or lack thereof) for God. The Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible did not employ this rule (nor any capitalization distinction for that matter), and God certainly did not ask us to capitalize his pronouns. Furthermore, according to strict English rules, a divine pronoun would have to be capitalized for any deity, including false ones. So consistently following the rule would require me to capitalize he when I refer to Allah and Zeus. I’m not about to do that.

Second, it’s a relatively new rule. I have not been able to trace exactly when this rule started, but take a look at your King James Version of the Bible. The divine pronouns are not capitalized in there. (If they are capitalized in your copy, they have been added.) Looking through my commentaries, divine pronouns are not capitalized in those from the early 1800s, though some from the late 1800s do capitalize it. My point here is simply that the church throughout most of its history has not felt this to be necessary.

Third, it isn’t used in the majority of Bible translations, and there is a good reason for that. As I already mentioned, the original texts followed no such rule, so capitalizing divine pronouns would technically be an addition to the text. But the real problem comes with ambiguous pronouns. That is, sometimes we are not sure to whom the pronoun refers. Is it to God or to a man? Which should we choose at this point? And sometimes, a pronoun is used in a prophecy that has a duel fulfillment—fulfilled once in a normal man and then later fulfilled again in Christ Jesus. Do we capitalize based on the first or second fulfillment? Here’s an example.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, ESV)

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, NASB)

“Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14, HCSB)

The English Standard Version does not capitalize divine pronouns, but the New American Standard Bible and the Holman Christian Standard Bible are two of the few that do. The NASB translators decided to capitalize the pronoun in Isaiah 7:14, based on the second fulfillment of this prophecy in Christ. However, the HCSB translators decided not to capitalize the pronoun, based on the first fulfillment of the prophecy in the immediate context to King Ahaz. Confusing, no? It’s much easier if we just avoid it altogether.

Finally, this is a dying rule. It is not currently required as a standard rule of English, and its use is dwindling more and more. In fact, some recent style manuals have specifically stated not to capitalize divine pronouns. For the most part, it comes down to the standard decided upon for a particular publication. I did capitalize divine pronouns when I wrote for Answers in Genesis, as that was their standard. But for my personal writings, I have chosen not to do. And now that I work for Logos, I’m happy to follow their standard of not capitalizing divine pronouns when I write for them.

Just for fun, check out this spoof piece, the “THO Guide to Christian Capitalization.” As an editor, I actually have come across a few people’s writings that were as overly capitalized as this parody suggests. I would personally rather err on the side of using too little capitalization.

What Do You Think?

Do you capitalize divine pronouns? Why or why not? Can you help me out with the history of capitalizing divine pronouns? I’d love to know who first came up with the idea.

Share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends.

[This post was updated in May of 2014.]