Getting Christian capitalization right.

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 other people won’t capitalize our names, right? …Wait, do people do that 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. 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 yet another title.) As titles, we don’t really need to capitalize ’em either, but Christians are in the habit of treating “Satan” as its proper name. Yet Christians, just to stick it to Satan a little, will refer to it as lowercase-S “satan.” 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. Only YHWH is an uppercase-G God, and not just a God but the God. Mix this up, and people are gonna doubt your 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” isn’t the formal version of “you.” Other way round. In the 1500s and before, family and friends were “thou.” (Back then it was 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,” same as we see in the King James Version.

But 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?

Anyway, people who don’t know old-timey English just assumed if it’s unfamiliar, it’s formal. “Thou” turned into 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, 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 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 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 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 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 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.

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 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 none of your capitalizations matter. And I discovered this actually a big deal: I kept referring to Jesus, not by name, but by “Him.” I was in the habit of using capitalized pronouns. When you’re reading it, it’s easy to recgonize these pronouns mean Jesus… but when you hear it aloud, you can’t always tell. Fr’instance:

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.

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 not-as-interested wife, “listen to 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.’ 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 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. Usually “he” means Jesus. But sometimes not.

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.

Me, I’m writing to be understood. Overdoing pronouns means people will 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 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 thing… and the original texts of the bible were written in all-caps alphabets. (Greek lowercase wasn’t invented till the mid-800s.) So God doesn’t feel honored or dishonored if you do it or don’t bother. Doesn’t make us 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 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 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.