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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

13 January 2006

Biblical Capitalization

Q: Why do many versions of the Bible not capitalize divine pronouns such as “He” and “Him” when referring to Christ or God? For example, my Bible uses “he” when speaking of the Lamb opening the seals in Revelation.

A: Whether or when to capitalize these pronouns follows the same erratic history as do most other parts of the English language. For example, the earliest printings of the Authorized Version (King James Bible) didn’t capitalize. Later editions did. For many years thereafter, the AV was the only widely used translation. Even when modernizing attempts began, most of these earlier efforts likewise capitalized divine pronouns.

Such questions go beyond the pronouns. Writers’ guides and style books disagree on other usages, also. Do we write “Biblical” or “biblical”? Is it “law and gospel” or “Law and Gospel”? For example, the Chicago Manual of Style “tends to prefer lowercasing in general.” However, CMS says, “It’s not wrong to uppercase, especially if you are writing for a religious readership or anyone else who might take lowercasing as a sign of disrespect. In matters of style, in contrast to those of grammar, there are few right or wrong answers.”

This matter of “disrespect” is probably what prompted your question. Personally, I prefer to capitalize and will make a case for uppercase pronouns. Indeed, I follow outdated “rules” of style quite a bit because I am comfortable with them. If you read my column regularly, you see that I capitalize liberally; however, when I quote sources using lower case, I let that stand as written.

I wouldn’t want to accuse any modern Bible printers of disrespect. They’re using the style common to the world around them. They’re also avoiding conflict in select places in Scripture when the text could be interpreted as speaking about either God or a man. What matters much more is an overall accurate translation that conveys the spirit, the sense, and the true subject of the original text. Until we have perfection in this area, I’ll not worry overmuch about the pronouns in the Bibles I buy. However, since capitalizing is, for me, a sign of respect, I’ll continue to do so whenever I can.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


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