Getting Christian capitalization right.

We Christians have invented a lot of petty and stupid ways to judge our fellow Christians for how devout they are. That’s what these Expectations articles are about, y’know. We don’t look for fruit of the Spirit. We look for this crap. So from time to time I get judged for not meeting my fellow Christians’ expectations. So do you. Isn’t it tiresome?

One of the little litmus tests is how we do on Christian capitalization. I get rebuked for this on a frequent basis: I don’t capitalize Christian things enough. I don’t capitalize “bible”—as if people aren’t gonna know I’m talking about the bible when I do so. I don’t capitalize God’s pronouns. I don’t capitalize “church” and “liturgy” and “sacrament.” I do capitalize Satan.

Because I follow the rules of 21st century grammar. I know; it’s a dying practice. I read a lot of news, and regularly catch reporters misusing apostrophes. People love to use ’em for plurals. Love love love. Even though they shouldn’t. When in doubt, don’t. But I digress.

Now under the rules of 16th century grammar, you capitalize everything you wanna emphasize, which is why the U.S. Constitution and our Declaration of Independence are full (or to do it 16th-century style, Full) of capitalizations. But we stopped doing that in the 19th century, and the only reason Christians kept it up is because we liked old books. We oughta still like old books… but that’s another digression.

Under 21st century grammar, we capitalize proper names, and titles when we address people by ’em. We capitalize Jesus, of course; we capitalize Lord when we address him as such, but when we refer to him as our lord, we needn’t. Christians will, ’cause they don’t realize there’s a difference, and figure you always capitalize lord. And yeah, when we’re referring to YHWH, the LORD, yeah we do. But “lord” is his title, not a proper name. “God” is his species, not a proper name; calling him “God” is like when he refers to Ezekiel as “Son of Man.” Ek 2.1

Like I said, Christians don’t realize there’s a difference, and get all bent out of shape when people refer to “god,” as in “The guru claims to be an expert on god.” (Y’realize if the guru is Hindu, of course you wouldn’t capitalize “god,” ’cause we could be talking about any of their gods.) To the Christian’s mind, it doesn’t matter if “god” is only God’s species: You capitalize it! Always. It’s not lowercase-G “god,” and lowercasing God’s title disrespects him, doesn’t it? Just like how it disrespects us when people won’t capitalize “human,” right?

Just like how disrespects us when other people won’t capitalize our names, right? …Wait, do people do this as a way to disrespect one another? I mean, unless they’re being a little creative with graphic design, like movie credits which put everything in lowercase: Who lowercases people’s names so as to insult them? And when we see it done to our own names, 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.

Now the things we call it—“devil” and “Satan”—are actually both titles. We don’t know its proper name. (No, it’s not “Lucifer.” That’s a misinterpretation… and another title, while we’re at it.) As titles, we don’t actually need to capitalize ’em either, unless we’re addressing the devil by its title—“Listen, Devil,” or “Listen, Accuser”—but Christians traditionally treat “Satan” as this particular satan’s proper name. Yet Christians, just to stick it to Satan a little, like to lowercase it where inappropriate. Yeah, like this gets it back for convincing people to use lowercase-G’s on God. It’s petty of us.

It also freaks Christians out when people capitalize “God” to refer to another religion’s god. Like Aten or Wotan or Vishnu—we don’t refer to these beings as “Gods,” but “gods.” Zeus isn’t a God, but a god. Properly, YHWH is a god too, but to honor him we insist on making him always, always an uppercase-G God, ’cause he’s the God.

Mix any of these customary rules up, and people are gonna doubt your salvation. Even if it’s an honest mistake, or a pagan editor removing all our sacred capitalization.

Yeah, 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 write about him, and call him “him”—Christians like to insist 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’m gonna point out “thou” isn’t the formal version of “you.” Other way round. In the 1500s and before, family and friends were “thou”—and back then it was pronounced “du” like in German, and sometimes “tu” like in Spanish and French. And Christianity teaches us God is family; he’s our Father. So he’s properly meant to be addressed familiarly, with “thou,” same as we see in the King James Version.—and in languages which have a formal “you,” like Spanish and French.

How’d “thou” become formal then? English evolves. In the 1600s English-speakers dropped the informal “thou” and used the formal “you” with everyone. Because aren’t we all ladies and gentlemen; not just the nobles? And as “thou” became a word only the KJV and Quakers use, because it was rare and unfamiliar, people came to assume it was formal. “Thou” turned into a title of respect… and God became distant instead of close, and frankly some people are just fine with that. Basically it’s a combination of bad history and bad theology, disguised as respect.

Since Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God, Christians figure 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 refer to these people as “Them” or “them”? Does Jesus’s divinity make up for Peter’s lack of it? Or does it ennoble Peter so much, we can legitimately capitalize “Them” to denote Jesus and Peter? Well, custom is to lowercase it, lest anyone get the wrong idea Peter became divine somehow. We totally wanna respect Jesus, but friggin’ Peter ruined it. 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 to capitalize other pronouns, like Who and Whom, or 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 how they can’t seem to 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”; just make sure you capitalize it when you mean God. (And for some of ’em, whenever you’d ordinarly use “who,” as in “He’s the God who forgives us,” they imagine “whom” is the proper formal use of “who,” and insist on saying “He’s the God Whom forgives us.” I know it sounds incorrect; it is. But they figure formal is meant to be weird, right?)

Yep, these are Christians 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 out of our heavenly crowns. Or downgrade our heavenly mansion to one without a pool.

  • 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. (Yep, this is how some of these adjectives got 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 even done yet. On to Lesson 3!

Capitalize every holy thing.

Sometimes Christians ask me why I don’t capitalize “bible.” Because we have to, they insist: 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 do it for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so why not The Holy Bible? But you’ll notice nobody actually does this 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 Oyster Crackers and Grape Kool-Aid) 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 our founding documents, and the writings of Benjamin Franklin. People capitalized words to emphasize them. 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 otherwise highlighted other important concepts.

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 And Irritating.

And if our writing irritates people, they stop reading 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 dabbled in podcasting. I didn’t wanna riff; I didn’t want to unintentionally skip 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 people can’t hear any of your capitalizations. They don’t matter. And I discovered this is actually a big deal: When I wrote about Jesus, I was in the bad habit of not referring to him by name, but by “Him.” Lots of capitalized pronouns. Which is fine when you’re reading it… but when you hear it aloud, whom are you talking about now?

Fr’instance:

Whenever 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.

Read it aloud to someone. (Without pronouncing “Him” any different than usual.) See whether they can figure out where you mean Jesus. You see the problem.

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,” a fan will shout over his shoulder to his far-less-interested wife, “listen to this: ‘Whenever 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.’ That’s good stuff.” And Honey, even if she’s actually interested, won’t always ask for clarification. More likely, when confused, she’ll 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 way overboard with 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. Which isn’t hard to do; usually the guy telling parables is Jesus. But you know how people quote bible: They pluck a verse completely out of its context and quote it, and then they gotta explain who all the pronouns refer to. Too often they don’t remember to do this.

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

As for me, I write to be understood. Overdoing pronouns means people will misunderstand me. Not might; will. So it’s best to use proper names or titles frequently. Nothing wrong with writing “God” or “Christ” or “the Spirit” more often. Make it crystal clear which “he” I mean. And if you wanna be better understood as well, 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 practice. The original texts of the bible were written before lowercase was invented; it’s all-caps. So God doesn’t feel honored or dishonored if you capitalize everything you can, or don’t bother. Doesn’t make us any holier either way. It’s purely a human custom. Take or leave it.

But same as all human customs, Christians will demand it of you. Sometimes I hear it from my church members, especially when I don’t capitalize stuff in the bulletins, or the worship music slides: They think it’ll make baby Jesus cry when 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 when they really get bent out of shape about it, it’s time to take ’em aside and deal with the bigger issues behind their freakouts: Legalism, hypocrisy, and superstition.

Take or leave it. I leave it.