“Beware Those Capital S's!”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

In our consideration of the original languages of the Bible, we’re fairly used to the idea that koiné Greek has elements that modern English doesn’t.  Most Christians have heard that there are four Greek words equivalent to the English “love”.   However, the opposite also is true.  There are things that modern English does that Greek doesn’t.

In particular, the Greek manuscripts of the Bible don’t use capitalization, along with punctuation and spaces between words.  However, we do use capitalization.  In a religious context, we use it to refer to deity.  God is our Creator, not our creator.  Jesus is Lord, not lord. 

This often makes a difference in comprehension.  If I say that my daughter has a generous spirit, readers understand that I am discussing her attitude and demeanor, not claiming that she is inhabited by a heavenly being.  However, when I say that the apostles were baptized with the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, I clearly am talking about the heavenly being.

In Greek, those cues are absent.  All the capitalized references to God in our Bibles were capitalized by the translators.  In this, they did not apply some sort of esoteric knowledge.  Rather, they considered the context and determined whether the word in context appeared to be talking about deity or not.

Sometimes, there is little question.  “Spirit” in 2 Corinthians 13:14 obviously is about the Godhead; “spirit” in 1 Corinthians 5:5 obviously is not.  However, there are many verses in which the correct choice is less obvious, and in those situations, our translations tend to employ the capital S.   

In my ever-so-humble opinion, all the capital S’s can introduce a level of mystical confusion into texts that would be straightforward if translated in lowercase.  Romans 8:1-11 is perhaps the most obvious example of this.  With capital S’s, throughout the context, Paul is paralleling a being (the Spirit) with a non-being (the flesh).  Additionally, he appears to be claiming that Christians are simultaneously indwelt by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, and the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead.  Great is the mystery, indeed!

However, the mystery vanishes in lowercase.  Now, Paul is discussing the difference between those who walk according to the flesh (by following their fleshly impulses) and those who walk according to the spirit (by following their spiritual impulses).  So too, having the spirit of God, the spirit of Christ, and the spirit of Him who raised Christ from the dead doesn’t mean that we have a multitude of supernatural entities sharing our headspace.  Instead, it means that we share God’s motivations and perspectives. 

A little Greek is a dangerous thing, but so too is unquestioningly accepting translators’ decisions in areas where thoughtful Christians are competent to decide for themselves.  I may well be wrong about Romans 8.  Certainly, others are free to disagree with me!  However, all of us ought to be aware of the issue and address it thoughtfully, as befits those with a Berean spirit.