TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

22 September 2015

Getting Christian capitalization right.

How to capitalize every last pronoun which refers to God. And while we’re at it, a bunch of other words.

Y’know, we Christians have invented a lot of little (and stupid) ways to gauge how devout our fellow Christians are—how closely we follow Jesus, how much we respect and honor God, how saved we are. How many Christianese words and terms can we slip into our conversation? How likely are we to pray at the slightest provocation? Are we willing to mar the bumpers of our cars with Jesus fish and pro-God stickers? Can we quote bible verses casually, and post ’em on Twitter?

One of those little litmus tests is how we do on Christian capitalization. Do we capitalize all the appropriate titles and names and holy things and their pronouns when we’re writing about God and Christianity?

Fr’instance when we’re writing about God, we’d better darned well have capitalized the title “God.” I know; some Christians call it the name of God, but YHWH’s his name; God’s his title. Technically his species. Still: Capitalize it! It’s not lowercase-G “god,” like we use for other religions’ gods, especially religions with multiple gods. Lowercasing God’s title, we feel, would disrespect him.

Just like it disrespects us when people don’t capitalize our names, right? …Wait, do people do that? I mean, other than when they’re getting creative with a list of names, who lowercases people’s names? And when it’s done, who among us is so sensitive, we identify this as a slight? Does it ever occur to anybody to consider this a big deal? Or an insult?

Yet you’ll actually find Christians do this to the devil. Seriously. “Devil” is its title, so it needn’t be capitalized either, but we’re in the habit of treating its title “Satan” as a proper name. And yet Christians will refer to it as lowercase-S “satan,” just to stick it to “satan” for convincing people to use lowercase-G’s on God. It’s quite petty of us.

It also freaks us out when people capitalize “God” to refer to another religion’s god. Like Aten or Wotan or Vishnu—we don’t refer to those beings as Gods, but gods. Zeus isn’t a God, but a god. Only YHWH is a God, and not just a God but the God. Mix this up, and people are gonna doubt our salvation. Even if it’s an honest mistake, or a pagan editor removing all our sacred capitalization.

It’s already kinda silly but it goes further. A lot further. Follow me down the rabbit hole, will you?

Capitalize God’s pronouns.

Whenever we refer to God by pronoun—when we’re writing about him, and call him “him,” Christians will insist we make sure that’s capitalized too. God isn’t just “him.” He’s “Him.” Everybody else merits nothing more than your garden-variety lowercase pronouns, but God deserves the very best, and that includes capitalization. God is always Him, He, His; and in second-person personal vocative address, You, Your, and sometimes the formal Thou, Thee, Thy, and Thine.

I should point out “thou” wasn’t originally the formal version of “you.” Other way round. In the 1500s and before, family and friends were “thou,” which was still pronounced “du” like in German, and sometimes “tu” like in Spanish and French. But, as Christianity teaches us, God is family. He’s our Father, so he’s to be addressed familiarly, with “thou,” as we see in the King James Version. But English evolved: In the 1600s we dropped the informal “thou” and used the formal “you” with everyone. And because the KJV is old-timey English, it became formal, “thou” became a title of respect, and God became distant instead of close. Basically it’s bad history and bad theology, disguised as respect.

Since Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, we gotta capitalize their pronouns too. Jesus is a “He,” the Holy Spirit is a “Him,” and whenever we refer to them both it’s “They.”

Here’s where it gets tricky. When we’re using a plural pronoun to refer to combination of God and humans—like when we’re writing about Jesus and Peter having a chat, or the Holy Spirit empowering Paul to heal a deaf girl—do we call these people “Them” or “them”? Does Jesus’s divinity make up for Peter’s lack of it? Or does it ennoble Peter so much that we can legitimately capitalize “Them” with them? Well, custom is to lowercase it, lest anyone get the wrong idea Peter is divine too. We totally wanna respect Jesus, but friggin’ Peter ruined all. (I leave it to you as to whether that’s bad theology as well.)

So that’ll cover the usual personal pronouns: When God refers to himself it’s I, Me, We, Our, and so forth; when we address him it’s You and Your; when we refer to him it’s He and His and so on. Never It. Oh, and don’t forget capitalizing when we describe God as the One we trust, One we follow, One we obey, etc.

Clear? Good. Now to lesson 2.

What, you thought we were done?

Capitalize every other reference to God.

Most folks’ grasp of grammar isn’t all that strong, as we’ve seen by the regular abuse of apostrophes, and the fact people can’t tell the difference between “you’re” and “your.” Or be bothered to care. For Christians, grammar’s only proper use is to single out and capitalize God-references. That’s plenty. Phooey on whether we know the difference between “who” and “whom”—when we’re talking God, it’s always “Whom,” ’cause that sounds nice and formal. Jesus is “the One Whom takes away sin.” I know it sounds incorrect (and it is), but formal is meant to be weird, right?

Yep, these’d be the folks who insist no referent shall escape our sight. Every single one must be hunted down and capitalized, lest we commit lèse-majesté and force God to knock one of the jewels from our heavenly crowns. Or downgrade our heavenly mansion to one without a solarium.

  • Every relative pronoun. If it’s a one, who, that, whose, which, or whom meant to point to God, capitalize it. Jesus is “the One we follow, Who takes away sin, through Whom we’re saved, in Whose name we call, That never fails us.”
  • Every adjective. Jesus isn’t just the author and finisher of our faith, He 12.2 but the Author and Finisher. (See, this is how some of these adjectives have turned into titles.) He’s our King and High Priest and Savior and Deliverer and Master and Best Friend. And this rule doesn’t just apply to stuff he does as Christ: “Behold the Man,” is how the NASB renders Pilate’s introduction in John 19.3, and he becomes “the Child” in Luke 2.40.

Oh, but we’re not done yet. On to Lesson 3!

Capitalize every holy thing.

Christians sometimes ask me why I don’t capitalize “bible.” Because, they insist, we’re supposed to. It’s the proper name of the Christian scriptures, and we capitalize proper names. It’s the Bible. Or the Holy Bible. We’d capitalize any other book title, right?

Well yeah, we would. We’d also put it in italics, for that matter. We’d do it for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so why not The Holy Bible? But you’ll notice nobody actually does that for the bible, because it’s actually not a book title. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a proper name either. It’s the word we use for the collective Christian scriptures, the books from Genesis to Revelation—and those words are book titles, which is why I italicize ’em.

The reason Christians capitalize “Bible” is for the very same reason they’ll capitalize “Church” or “Pastor” or “Heaven” or “Ark of the Covenant”: If it in any way connected to God, it’s holy; capitalize it.

Hence we have Saints, Apostles, Prophets, and Priests. We have the Bread and Wine (or Wafers and Juice) of Holy Communion. We have the Six Days of Creation, or Second Coming; whether the Four Gospels or the Minor Prophets or the Pastoral Epistles; whether the Ten Commandments or Ten Plagues, the Parables or the Sermon on the Mount, the Fall or the Final Judgment; whether Justification or Salvation or Sanctification or Atonement. If it’s a significant noun or adjective, capitalize it so we can signify it as Meaningful.

It’s a holdover from 18th-century rules of grammar. Americans will find it all over the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers: When people wanted to emphasize a word, they capitalized it. Yeah, sometimes they underlined or italicized it. But back then not every printer had italics in their typecases, so the only way to guarantee an individual word would receive its proper emphasis was to capitalize it. Hence the U.S. Constitution was written to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility,” and highlight other important concepts.

But the reason we don’t capitalize every major noun and adjective anymore is pretty simple—and one you’ve likely picked up from those folks whose mobile phones still capitalize every word in a text: It Makes It Harder To Read Such Things Smoothly And Easily. It Forces Us To Stop And Emphasize Every Word. It’s Distracting. It’s Also Irritating.

And if our writing irritates people, they won’t read it. They’ll go find easier stuff. Here on the internet, there’s plenty of easier stuff.

Why I don’t.

Duh; it’s irritating. Like I said.

It also makes a sloppier writer out of me. I discovered this a few years ago when I was dabbling in podcasting. I didn’t wanna riff; I didn’t want to drop anything important I wanted to cover; so I wrote out scripts for all the stuff I wanted to say. When you read a piece out loud, obviously none of your capitalizations matter.

That’s a minor thing. But it turns into a big deal when I discovered I hadn’t been referring to Jesus by name enough. I kept calling him “Him.” I kept using capitalized pronouns. Easy to follow in the printed text, but vanishes when you read the text aloud:

When a man comes to Him, he ought to tell Him, “I need Your help,” and He’ll do for him whatever He deems necessary to grow him in Him.

I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of people who love to quote their favorite books or websites out loud.

“Hey honey, lissena this: ‘When a man comes to him, he oughta tell him I need your help, and he’ll do for him whatever he deems necessary to grow him in him.’”

But rarely will Honey ask for clarification. More likely Honey, when confused, will just quit listening. As we all do.

If you’ve ever read the bible in the original languages (and it’s the only way I study it), most of the bible’s authors did the very same thing I did: They went a bit nuts on the pronouns. Gospel stories don’t start with “Jesus told his students” or “Jesus told the crowds” or “Jesus told the Pharisees,” but “He told them,” and you gotta figure out who’s “he” and who’s “them” from context. Usually “he” means Jesus… but sometimes not.

It’s why I suspect certain bible translators love to capitalize pronouns. That way they can leave all the pronouns in, and capitalize all the Jesus references. Instead of “And [Jesus] told [the leper],” they can just write, “And He told him,” and keep their translations nice ’n literal.

Me, I’m writing to be understood. Overdoing the pronouns means people might misunderstand me. Best to use proper names or titles more often. Nothing wrong with writing “God” or “Christ” or “the Spirit” more often than “he”—’cause now you know which “he” I mean. And if you wanna be better understood, I recommend you do the same.

Now, whether you yourself indulge (or overindulge) in Christian capitalization is another issue, and up to you. Obviously God never commanded any such thing, so he doesn’t feel honored or dishonored if you do it or don’t bother. Doesn’t make you any holier either way. It’s purely a human custom, so you can take or leave it as you please.

But same as all human customs, Christians may demand it of you. I hear it from my church sometimes, when they persist I capitalize “Bible” or “Him” or some other thing, ’cause they think it’ll make baby Jesus cry if I lowercase his pronouns. I don’t mind accommodating them, as we’re supposed to do with weaker sisters and brothers in Christ. Ro 14.13 But if they really get bent out of shape about it, it’s time to take ’em aside and deal with the bigger issue: Legalism, hypocrisy, or superstition.

In any case, you have free will: Figure it out. As for me, I leave it.