To ‘Cap’ or Not to ‘Cap’

Many of us of a certain age remember how we were taught that in order to show proper respect for God, that we must always capitalize any written reference to Him, including any pronouns that we use instead of His actual name (as this sentence did twice).  However, you may have noticed that this practice of capitalizing pronouns that refer to the Deity has fallen out of common usage.  In fact, if you look at the printed Order of Worship (i.e., the “bulletin”) that you were handed by the usher, or the hymnal or Bible in the pew, none of these capitalize words such as “he”, “him”, “his”, “thy”, “your” etc., even when they refer to God.

Is this an indication of creeping secularization invading our culture and religious life?   Not really.  Rather, it reflects a decision to conform to the style conventions for written English, which state that though proper names and titles are to be capitalized, pronouns shouldn’t be.  But, isn’t that a concession to a societal norm that is at odds with the “Traditionally Grounded” principle espoused by the NALC (North American Lutheran Church), the denomination to which this congregation belongs?   “Not really” applies to that one too, since capitalizing or not capitalizing pronouns isn’t an issue where the Bible displays any concern or provides any guidance.

Ancient Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament writers) not only lacked lower-case letters, it also lacked any form of punctuation, including spaces between words.  FORAMODERNREADERTHISSEEMSTOMAKEITDIFFICULTTOREADSUCHWRITINGBUTITAPPARENTLYWORKEDFORTHEM   Actually, in ancient Hebrew there weren’t even vowels, which would make the above sentence much more challenging yet (not to mention the fact that Hebrew is always written right to left.)

The New Testament was written in Greek, which also lacked both punctuation and lower-case letters at that time.  So in neither case was there any possibility of writing the names or references to God any differently than any of the rest of the text.

Now, as already noted, the rules of our language do require that proper names and titles be capitalized.  So if a person deliberately writes the name of our Lord as “jesus christ” that might indicate intent to show disrespect.  But when it comes to pronouns, is there any over-riding reason to prefer capitalization over non-capitalization for the modern Christian writer?  “Not really” applies once again!  It’s only a matter of personal preference.  Those who are concerned with obeying the stylistic rules of written English will opt for non-capitalization, and that is perfectly fine.  In fact, for some, the use of capitalized pronouns may seem ostentatious and distracting.  For others (such as this writer) capitalization of pronouns referring to God is so deeply ingrained that it feels irreverent to not do so.   And quite frankly, it seems to this writer that the practice of capitalizing ‘God’ pronouns often seems to make the text clearer and more concise.  But that’s a personal thing.

This whole topic is a rather trivial example of what theologians call adiaphora (ah-dee-OPH-oh-rah), which is an impressive sounding Greek term meaning roughly “neither right nor wrong.”  Capitalizing ‘God pronouns’ is a practice we humans devised based on a sense of personal piety rather than it being a question of morality (obedience to God’s expressed will).  We can be quite sure that the Almighty is not concerned with this detail since He, who knows our hearts intimately, doesn’t have to scrutinize our writing style to know whether we honor Him!

The thing about adiaphora is that though a practice may have no moral weight in itself, we do commit a wrong when we impose it on others as if it did.  For example, if this writer were to “lay a guilt trip” on the readers who chose to not capitalize pronouns used for God, that would be falsely creating a sin where none exists – and that IS a sin!   So with regard to this practice – please feel free to do as you like!

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