‘Reverential capitalization’ refers to the practice of capitalizing, for reasons of reverence or respect, the initial letters of words that refer to the deity.
Capitalization of nouns, in written English, does not convey respect or reverence. Rather, it conveys specification. We capitalize both Churchill and Hitler, both Pol Pot and Gandhi.
But what about capitalizing personal pronouns that refer to God?
Well, I think it is unnecessary and unhelpful, here’s why.
1. There is no biblical mandate for it
Biblical Hebrew does not distinguish between upper-case and lower-case letters, and the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament were written in all capital letters.
Therefore, Scripture does not and cannot set an example for us in this matter.
2. It has never been the church’s agreed or consistent approach
Prior to the mid-18th century, neither spelling nor the use of capitals was standardized. It was not unusual for half the words in a sentence to have their initial letters capitalized. Therefore, no clear inferences can be drawn from this period about how we should use capitals in modern English (except to say that we should embrace standardization in this, as in other aspects, of written English.
The practice of capitalizing pronouns referring to God became common in the 19th century. It was never the universal practice. It has become much less common in the present day.
I shall not attempt a detailed survey of Bible translations, hymn collections, and general theological works that have been produced in print over the past several centuries. But here is my impression:
Early editions of the Bible in English – including the Authorized Version – did not capitalize. Nor do most modern translations, including the NIV, ASV, ESV, RSV, NRSV and New Living translations.
Possibly the earliest English Bible translation to capitalize divine pronouns is Young’s Literal Translation (1862/1898). In this version, pronouns are capitalized for God, but not for Jesus.
A minority of English Bible translations capitalize. These include the Revised Version (1883), NKJV (1975- NT; 1982- OT), NASB (1960/1975 revised), and the Amplified Bible (1965/2015 revised).
By the way, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer did not capitalize.
The practice has been rather more prevalent in published collections of Christian hymns.
In the early Methodist offering, Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739, 1743) Charles Wesley’s ‘Hymn for Christmas Day’ (originally beginning, ‘Hark, how all the Welkin rings, but now knows as ‘Hark the herald angels sing’) has as its third verse:
Christ, by highest Heav’n ador’d,
Christ, the Everlasting Lord,
Late in Time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s Womb.
Clearly, with half the words being capitalized, we a living in a different orthographic world here. But it is of note that within a few years a second edition of this hymn book was produced, in which all the capitalizations were retained except those that introduced the personal pronouns of deity. So, we had:
Late in Time behold him come’. (Source)
Hymn books that do capitalize include: Hymns Ancient and Modern; The Methodist Hymn Book (1933); Christian Hymns (Evangelical Movement of Wales, 1977/1985) capitalizes all personal pronouns that refer to God (and quite a lot else besides); The Anglican Hymn Book (1977); Mission Praise (Complete Edition, 1999).
I have found varying practice in published worship songs.
One of the issues for publishers of collections of hymns is whether to adopt their own preferred style or that of the writer of the hymn. In most cases, the former applies.
In general theological literature, there has always been less tendency to capitalize. In fact, it can lead to some strange complications. What, for example, should an author or publisher who prefers to capitalize wishes to quote verbatim from a source (possibly, the Authorized Version of the Bible) that does not capitalize?
3. It is not good style
According to the standard style guides, personal pronouns should not be capitalized even when they refer to the deity.
The Christian Writers Manual of Style states that ‘most publishers, religious and general, use the lowercase style in large part to conform to the two most popular versions of the Bible (the best-selling NIV and the historically dominant KJV).’ (Source)
4. It is distracting and misleading
Because pronominal capitalization is not followed by all, or even most, authors and publishers, it creates confusion in the mind of the reader. It stands out as being odd. The reader may think that the word is capitalized for emphasis. For example, a modern reader may suppose that it is intended to emphasize the maleness of God over against the inclusive language that is in vogue in some places.
5. It foists odd interpretations onto the reader
Sometimes, the practice forces translators into making clear interpretative decisions when the original text is unclear. Consider, for example, Ruth 2:20:
‘Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be rewarded by the LORD because he has shown loyalty to the living on behalf of the dead!” Then Naomi said to her, “This man is a close relative of ours; he is our guardian.”’ (NET)
‘Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he of the LORD, who has not forsaken His kindness to the living and the dead!” And Naomi said to her, “This man is a relation of ours, one of our close relatives.”’ (NKJV)
But I accept that all translators have to make interpretative decisions, and so I do not regard this particular problem as very serious.
The issue can become more serious, however, when a passage from the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament. That passage may well have a double meaning (i.e. one that refers to the original context, and another that refers to the future).
Take the opening verses of Psalm 5 in the NKJV:
1 Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.”
By capitalizing ‘His Anointed’ (specified in a footnote as ‘Christ, Commissioned One, Heb. Messiah‘), the translators have deliberately obscured any reference that the text may have had either to the current king, or to King David.
Furthermore, by capitalizing ‘Their’ (twice in verse 3), the translators are not only confirming the impression that ‘His Anointed’ refers only to Christ, but are also making God’s enemies reverential towards him.
As Rod Decker remarks, something similar might be said about the Messianic psalms generally, and also the Servant passages in Isaiah.
Here is Exodus 3:13 in the NKJV:
‘Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?”’
The problem here, as Mark Ward remarks, is that the capitalization of ‘His’ implies that Moses already knows the answer to his own question!
The Amplified Bible (Classic Edition) renders Matthew 2:8
‘Go and search for the Child carefully and diligently, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him.’
These words are Herod’s, of course, and are meant with malicious intent. He certainly did not regard the baby Jesus as divine. And so the Amplified Bible has to use (and frequently re-use) the following footnote:
‘Capitalized because of what He is, the spotless Son of God, not what the speaker may have thought He was.’
See the discussion here, which explains why the CSB does not capitalize divine pronouns (in contrast to the HCSB, which did).
Capitalizing the initial letters of personal pronouns that refer to the deity is the orthographical equivalent of depicting Jesus with a halo. It’s not the worst crime in the world. It’s certainly not worthy falling out over. But it’s unhelpful and unnecessary.