The Wartburg Project

March 18th, 2015

3. Why don’t you capitalize the pronouns that refer to God? That seems to give more honor to God.

The two most common suggestions that we have received are for a red letter Bible and to capitalize the pronouns that refer to God.

The first suggestion (to use red letters for the words of Jesus) is not a translation issue but it is just a matter of the publisher producing a red letter version if there is demand for one. We would have no objection to such a version.

The capitalization issue, however, touches on our translation philosophy. Since this question is so frequently asked we will give a little more detail:

It has been a recent convention of English usage to capitalize nouns and pronouns which refer to God. This, however, seems to have begun only in the 20th century. It was not the practice of early English translations including the original King James.  It also was not the practice of Luther’s German Bible.  Though there was a capitalized formal version of the German pronoun “you” Luther did not use this pronoun for God.  He used the uncapitalized du as his pronoun of choice to refer to God.  As our name Wartburg Project implies we give some weight to Luther’s principles.

Our basic principles are:  Capitalization of nouns and pronouns that refer to God is not a feature of the original text, and therefore it falls into the category of interpretation rather than translation. Interpretation is more the task of a study Bible, so it is better not to adopt this as a translation principle.

English style, however, requires titles and proper names be capitalized, so our translation capitalizes all titles of God, especially Messianic titles and proper names that occur in prophecies.

These two principles are in tension.  To reproduce the Bible literalistically a translator would have to use no capitalization, but English conventions call for the capitalization of proper names and titles. The practice is to capitalize only the titles and proper names, but not the common nouns and pronouns that refer to God.

Capitalization is not a feature that marks deity versus non-deity.  Capitalization distinguishes a title or a proper name from a common noun: the Antichrist or an antichrist (1 Jo 2:18); the Evil One or an evil one, or the evil (Lord’s Prayer); the Church or the church. Capitalization does not indicate deity or reverence: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Great Pumpkin, and I are all capitalized.

Capitalization may also be used to express differences of emphasis. A writer may use “the temple” or “the Temple” to indicate whether he is thinking primarily of the type of building that this structure is or he is emphasizing that this is the unique Temple of the Lord.  But all of these distinctions are foreign to the biblical text, so it is unwise to adopt capitalization as a device for marking Messianic prophecy or for distinguishing direct prophecy from typical prophecy. References to the Messiah are capitalized if they are titles. Otherwise they are not.