Avoid excessive capitalization of pronouns for God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and divine places. And learn about some other rules.
Thou Shalt Not Capitalize Too Much
Pronoun capitalization for the divine is a sore subject for Christian authors because we study lots of old literature—maybe I should write it ye olde literature—written when standards were more fluid. For instance, if you refer to Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible, you immediately notice John Calvin’s habit of capitalizing He and Him. Calvin died in 1564, and his grammar was a product of his time.
Based on CMOS 8.90-8.110 (in CMOS, the 16th edition), use lower case pronouns related to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, as in: he, him, his, you, and your.
Deities, whether Judeo-Christian or otherwise, are capitalized, such as: Allah, Jehovah, Satan (but not the devil), Mithra, and Yahweh. Likewise, alternatives for God and the Trinity are capitalized, including: Adonai, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit or the Paraclete, etc.
Prophets, too, are generally capitalized, including: the Buddha, the prophet Isaiah, the Good Shepherd, the Son of man (or the Son of Man), the Prophet (Muhammad). But lowercase when you are referring to the apostles, the patriarchs, and the psalmist.
These guidelines agree with Kathy Ide’s advice in her book, Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors. Kathy is the founder of both The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network and the Christian Editor Network. She is considered by many editors of Christian works to be the leading authority on matters of grammar and style.
Ide’s advice agrees with the guidelines in The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style by Robert Hudson.
Capitalization should not be viewed as a means of conveying reverence. While once in vogue, capitalizing pronouns for God is no longer practiced by publishers of the major Bible translations available today. Most Christian publishers also adhere to these conventions, so unless your publisher has guidelines to the contrary, it’s best to stick with more modern standards UNLESS you are deliberately trying to invoke an old manuscript style for the purposes of your story.
Confusing? Well, I’m afraid so.
Other Details and Guidelines
CMOS 8.109 and 8.50 (in CMOS, 17th edition) seem to directly contradict each other.
“8.109: Heaven, hell, and so on - Terms for divine dwelling places, ideal states, places of divine punishment, and the like are usually lowercased (though they are often capitalized in a purely religious context). See also 8.50.”
CMOS says to use heaven and hell, but not when referring to an actual place: “Mom is in Heaven now.”
Lowercase also applies to paradise and the pearly gates, but not to Eden or Hades.
“8.50: Real versus metaphorical names - Mecca is capitalized when referring to the Islamic holy city, as is Utopia when referring to Thomas More’s imaginary country. Both are lowercased when used metaphorically.”
Therefore, you would write the following:
- Boston is his mecca; he returns every spring.
- What are you trying to do? Establish a utopia?
- The cool waves were heaven as they caressed her sunburned shoulders.
- The military indoctrination period was a living hell.
On page 120 of The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, edited by Robert Hudson (see resources below), you will find the following:
“Heaven, Hell, Etc. Although place names in the Bible are ordinarily capitalized, terms like heaven, hell, gehenna, sheol, tartarus, and hades are lowercased as common nouns. This is done to accord with the style used by most of the popular versions of the Bible. … The word paradise is capitalized only when it refers specifically to the garden of Eden. The word kingdom is usually lowercased.”
If you write Bible studies, devotionals, or Christian fiction, then The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style is a must have. See the resources listed below.
Adding to the Pronoun Confusion
Ide has an addendum to her advice which I will summarize. If you quote exclusively or predominantly from a Bible version that capitalizes pronouns for deity, then do the same in your prose. I interpret that to apply to scholarly writing and not to fiction because I believe we should make it easy for unbelievers to test the waters.
Avoid Unnecessary Barriers in Fiction
Fiction should not put up barriers to the readers; think of the nonbeliever who picks up your clean romance novel for the first time. You want to share the goodness of God without putting the neophyte off with crusty conventions.
What seems perfectly ordinary to a lifelong Christian steeped in biblical language like grace, redemption, sanctification, etc. and traditions, like capitalized pronouns, seems foreign to the very people you want to reach.
This is my two cents as an editor and fellow believer; gentleness and consideration need to be the order of the day when a stranger approaches our work.
Finally, on page 38, Ide writes: “If you choose to capitalize pronouns for deity, do not capitalize who, whom, who’s, or whose.”
Chicago Manual of Style: 16th Edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Chicago Manual of Style: 17th Edition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Ide, Kathy. Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors, 36-38. Raleigh, NC: Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, 2014.
Hudson, Robert, editor. The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 113-132. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.