Should We Capitalize Divine Pronouns? — Mondays with Mounce 305

Bill Mounce on December 4th, 2017. Tagged under ,.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

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 seem 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 CSB revision (2017). In other words, there is no real historical precedent for why this practice should be followed.

The Facebook group on translations has pointed out that some relatively unknown translations do capitalize 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 style guide says to capitalize divine pronouns. While the Chicago Manual of Style does not tell me how to respect God, its style (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 style guide. 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’ style guides 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.

Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek here.

***

Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at BillMounce.com.

  • Selected News Stories from Around the World* — Tuesday, Dec. 12 | The BibleMesh Blog 4 months ago

    […] Should We Capitalize Divine Pronouns? (Bill Mounce) […]

  • steve 4 months ago

    … except that you are translating the text into a language where capitalization is the norm … not using capitalization appears unusual to the modern eye …

  • Donna Rudd 4 months ago

    This makes me smile. When I was in seminary, one of my professors commented after grading my paper that it was probably not necessary to capitalize “divine pronouns.” I had never heard the term and mentioned it to my proofreader. She laughed and said she had never heard it either, but it was obvious to both of us what we would do going forward. The prof. didn’t really count off for it in that paper, and I adjusted for future papers. The term actually sounds delightfully lofty, in contrast to the fact that it is not to be capitalized.

  • Derek 4 months ago

    I am not convinced by the logic of your argument concerning the lack of differentiation between lower-case and capitals in the Hebrew and Greek texts. If we take it to the logical conclusion, then we would not capitalize proper names either: Abraham, Jerusalem, even Jesus!

    That is to say nothing of the translation of “YHWH” as “LORD”.

    What we are really left with is tradition and common practice – and neither of these are sufficient to accept or deny the “correctness” of capitalizing the divine pronoun.

    In my own writings of sermons or articles, I always capitalize the divine pronoun. As a matter of interest, I also capitalize “Heaven” and “Hell” as they are definite places in my theology.

    At the end, it really comes down to personal preference – and my preference is to capitalize the divine pronoun for clarity sake.