English grammar plays a theological trick with capitalization.
When the noun “God” is capitalized, it means the one, true God, the God we worship.
When the noun is not capitalized, god refers to a false god, the god or gods of the pagans. Capitalization represents a theological judgment. But the story is deeper and more problematic.
Look it Up
When investigating how words have functioned in English, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is for me the place to start. The OED reports historical usage, but it also reflects a fascinating history.
The entry for the headword god in the most recent edition has two main sections.
Third Edition (2021)
“uses relating to polytheism”
“uses relating to monotheism, and senses derived from this. (Now usually with initial capital.)”
But the first edition of the dictionary, published in 1910, uses slightly different headings.
First Edition (1900)
“In the original pre-Christian sense”
“In the specific Christian and monotheistic sense. The One object of supreme adoration; the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. (Now always with initial capital.)”.
The basic outline and definitions are identical in both editions, but the shift in headings is telling. The first edition (1900) sees the usages of God and god from a Christian point of view, while the third edition (2021) has taken up what might be termed an ecumenical or history of religions point of view by making polytheistic/monotheistic the major categories, using Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as the primary examples.
Deference to Christianity is deep in the history of the English language. In Old English the word god was neuter, but under the influence of Christianity it became a masculine noun, thus privileging the Christian perspective.
Capitalizing God was the next step in this privileging. In the first edition (1900) the headword for the entry is “God” with a capital G. The capital G indicates that the noun is a proper name.
Oxford 1st edition, 1900
The second edition of the OED (1989) snuck in the lower-case g “god” headword, while changing nothing else in the entry.
The Third Edition of the OED (2021) extends Christian privilege to the other monotheistic religions, namely, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Abrahamic faiths. But why privilege monotheism over polytheism? The OED offers no reason.
Oxford 3rd edition, 2021
The distinction between monotheism and polytheism takes up a hidden Christian perspective. Both Judaism and Islam think that Christianity is a polytheistic religion. To describe the Abrahamic religions as monotheistic supports the Christian position in the debate. But using capitalization to support a theological position is something that we should question. Such usage hides theological assumptions that obstruct critical thinking.
The fundamental distinction made evident by the First Edition of the OED (1900) is between the god or gods of paganism, especially Greece and Rome, and the one true God of Christianity. But this is clearly a theological judgment that confers Christian privilege. Surely the Greeks and Romans would not agree to such a distinction.
The third edition’s distinction between polytheism and monotheism does not change the meaning: it privileges monotheistic religions over polytheistic religions. The dictionary expresses an underlying declaration of the superiority of monotheism to polytheism. Finally, Christianity is an imperial religion, and the Oxford English Dictionary associates Christianity with the British Empire: the Dictionary was dedicated to Queen Victoria. The first proposal for the Dictionary noted “something muscularly Christian” about the English language. The very scale of the OED is a celebration of British empire.*
But monotheism is a problematic category. Judaism and Islam have never accepted Christianity’s claim to be monotheistic. The Trinity appears to them to be polytheistic.
Our question remains. On what grounds (other than tradition) can one maintain a capital G for god? Such capitalization clearly requires privileging the god of Christianity or a monotheistic god over polytheistic gods. It is code for Christian privilege.
All the World Is a Stage
Use of a capital G for god creates an unnoticed problem. In the theater there are two basic ways for an actor to play an emotion on stage: paint the emotion with a general brush over a whole speech or go for the particular emotion a character experiences within a specific plot.
A general emotion—overall sadness or joy, for example—runs the risk of appearing artificial, contrived, insincere. But a particular emotion requires an actor to explore specific experiences, show emotional complexity, and make the emotion seem real.
Something similar happens with God-capitalized. A generalized sense of God as the supreme being (OED)—the God we worship, our God—is conveyed whenever “God” is used. The doctrine of the oneness of God wipes out any particularity of meaning. The capital G is an intellectual and semantic sleight of hand because the oneness of God is a theological conclusion, not an historical one.** Any particular sense, a sense of historical place and reality, is forfeited.
Abandoning the capital G for god has several advantages. It enables precision in what we denote by god. It does not prejudge or overvalue any one sense of god nor assume that all uses of god are the same.
In the ancient religion of Israel and later Judaism, the divine name was not pronounced. In fact, the vocalization of YHWH was lost. The vocalization of Adonai (Lord) was substituted.*** It might make sense now, when writing of the god of the Hebrew tradition, to write “g-d” and pronounce it “Adonai.” This has important outcomes.
Too often in reading ancient writings, when we read the word “God” we fill in the meaning, “what we mean by God.” For example, most Christians fill in “the Christian God, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But in the Hebrew Bible, the god of those writings is the g-d of the Hebrew peoples, the g-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
YHWH is the name of the g-d of Israel. Christians argue that their god is the g-d of Israel, but Jews are not so sure. The Christian Trinity strikes Jews and Muslims as polytheistic. As an historian of religion, I prefer to leave that theological debate aside, while noticing that the burden of proof lies with Christians to clearly demonstrate that Trinity is not polytheistic
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Holy Writings), kurios (Lord) was substituted for the divine name YHWH, on the basis that kurios (lord) was the equivalent of Adonai, the vocalization of YHWH. This semantic confusion in the Septuagint had important outcomes on the development of Christology.
In the mid second century CE, Justin Martyr noticed that in Israel’s Holy Writings “Lord” referred to the g-d of Israel but in the communities of the Anointed, Jesus was also addressed as “Lord,” therefore Jesus and the g-d of Israel were identical. (For more details, see chapter 16, After Jesus Before Christianity.)
Empire of g-d
Avoiding a capital G also helps in understanding Jesus’ use of the empire (basileia, traditionally “Kingdom”) of g-d. In the New Testament gospels, the empire (kingdom) of God is the empire of the g-d of Israel, whom Rome had defeated. The phrase basileia tou theou (empire of g-d) reads very differently, depending upon whether one construes it to mean the empire of a defeated g-d or the empire of the victorious Christian god of Constantine or the kingdom of God in the King James Bible.
Paul picks up on the scandalous nature of a defeated g-d. He preaches the Anointed crucified, which is very different from Christ crucified.
“Anointed” recalls the Hebrew heritage of the title and is meaningless in Greek. “Christ,” can be made to mean almost anything. “Anointed” for Paul means “Anointed by the g-d of Israel,” while “crucified” points to Rome’s defeat of the Anointed and of g-d. That is the oxymoron of the scandal of the cross. A supreme God obscures the scandal of the g-d of a defeated Israel.
Being in the Form of God or a god?
Philippians 2:6–11 is a poetic composition in non-Pauline language. It is often described as traditional, meaning it was formulated before Paul recorded it, but I am not sure what traditional can mean, given the date (circa 55 CE) of the letter to the Philippians.
The first phrase in the hymn illustrates the problem of the word “God.” In the traditional English translation (KJ, NRSV) of the initial phrase “Being in the form of God” (Phil 2:6), “God” means the supreme being of the Christian tradition. This is the default understanding. But “God” is a very problematic translation of the original Greek that occurs in the hymn.
Greek writing in this period only had capital letters, so it could not make the same distinction that English makes between God and god. If the hymn intended to refer to the g-d of Israel, one would expect an article (“the”) with the noun, as for example in basieleia tou theou (empire of g-d). Since there is no article in the Greek, it should be translated “being in the form of a god.”
Commentators have long recognized that the traditional translation of “being in the form of a God” has been over-influenced by the doctrine of the Trinity and the Logos hymn that introduces the gospel attributed to John. Both understandings are inappropriate. There is no “Father,” no “Son” (the being is unnamed), and no Holy Spirit. In no way does “being in the form of a god” imply the Trinity.
Likewise, there is no decent/ascent pattern in the hymn. The Philippians’ hymn concerns a loss of honor. The being gives up the status of a god for that of a slave. The translation “being in the form of a god” is supported by the hymn’s contrast of the being to both Adam and the emperor, both of whom tried to seize the status of a god. (See my The Trouble with Resurrection, chapter 6.)
Two Gods in America
In the nineteenth century, many American denominations split over the issue of slavery. In the twentieth century many of those same denominations reunified. A good example is the United Methodist Church. Recently they seem to be moving toward another break up. Slavery was thought to be the cause for their split, but actually the two branches worshipped different gods.
Abolitionists and slavery supporters, seen here in an 1856 political cartoon mediated by former President Millard Fillmore, both appealed to the Bible for justification.
The god of the abolitionists was a god of freedom, while the god of the pro-slavery forces was a god of law and retribution. The abolishment of slavery did not change which god these two groups worshipped but masked the issue.
The fissure caused by the demands of modern sexual identity debates broke through the façade of the oneness of the god they thought they worshipped to reveal the real truth that they worshipped different gods. Christian dogma and ecumenical politeness demand that we acknowledge that we all worship the same god, but as a historian of religion, I demur.
Do I seriously think that my proposal will be adopted? Not really. Traditions are very difficult to overturn. Copy editors seem to think their “rules” for capitalizing god have fallen from the heavens without realizing that they are mostly a matter a recent custom and privileging a Christian perspective. For my part, I will not capitalize god and will make every effort to be specific about which god or gods I am writing about.
*“[T]his dictionary idea sounded like a scheme that was on just the titanic scale which Victorian Britain seemed these days to be taking in its stride. Was Britain not at the time unquestionably the most powerful nation on earth? Did her navies not sail unchallenged in every ocean between the Poles? Did not a quarter of the world’s peoples bow down in abjectness and supplication before Her Majesty?
“And was there not in addition something muscularly Christian about the language that was spoken? (Dean Trench was quite certain that there was.) Might it not be that making an inventory of the language, and by so doing asserting and underlining its greatness, would not just help the English language around the globe? By thus extending its usefulness and ubiquity it would not only spread English influence abroad, but spread the influence of the Church of England into the darkness of the native world as well. Victorian Britain, however absurd and jingoistic it may look through today’s more critical lenses, represented an attitude suffused with the near-absolute self-confidence and greatness of ambition. It existed at a time of great men, great vision, great achievement—and armed with the hope and intentions spiritual, moral, and commercial, there was almost nothing that it could not do.” (Winchester, The Meaning of Everything, 42-3).
** A major task of Christian theology was to show that the g-d of Israel and the god of Jesus was identical with the god of the ancient philosophers. This task was ongoing as part of the claim to be the true inheritors of the Greek philosophical tradition. This has remained an ongoing task of Christian theology.
*** The consonants of the Hebrew YHWH and the vowels of Adonai produced the English “Jehovah.”
Bibliographic Note: OED
A cottage industry of books about the OED, its history, and composition has grown up in recent years. Who would have thought that the making of the world’s greatest dictionary could have been so interesting? It all started with Elisabeth Murray’s charming biography of her grandfather James Murray, the Dictionary’s first editor, with the wonderous title, Caught in the Web of Words. Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything, is a readable book of the history of the making of the Dictionary, up to and including the Online edition. Winchester followed up with another book, The Professor and the Madman, detailing an interesting side story around which a whole legend had grown up. This led to a 2019 film of the same title starring Mel Gibson as James Murray and Sean Penn as the madman. Two scholarly studies have been published on the Dictionary. Sarah Ogilvie, a former editor with Dictionary published Words of the World: A Global History of the Oxford English Dictionary with Cambridge University Press. Cambridge has finally found a way to latch on to the prestige of the Dictionary. Oxford responded with Peter Gilliver’s magisterial The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gilliver is the chief editor of the third edition of Dictionary.
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
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