In 2016, I discovered that this famous quote could not be found in any of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s works:
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
The quote attributed to Bonhoeffer was popularized by Eric Metaxas after it was published on the jacket of his best selling book on Bonhoeffer in 2010. To my knowledge, until yesterday, Metaxas has never addressed the false attribution even though it came to his attention in 2016.
First, I need to give a little background.
A week ago, Christianity Today published a fine article by Jen Wilkin on lessons from the life of Tamar. In it, Wilkin used the quote as follows:
There is a line we often hear attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.
Twitter user Matt Stephens tweeted a link to the article and pulled out the quote with attribution to Bonhoeffer. Assistant Professor of Ministry Leadership at Bethel University Andy Rowell responded by linking to my post showing that the quote didn’t come from Bonhoeffer. He also included author Jen Wilkin in his tweet.
Wilkin replied that she believed her handling of the quote preserved “the uncertainty of the quote’s origin while appreciating its message.” She also added later this statement, possibly meant in jest:
I wasn’t offended by the clarification! But imagine how many people would have told me it was a Bonhoeffer quote if I hadn’t mentioned him in connection to it. ?
— Jen Wilkin (@jenniferwilkin) May 23, 2019
I think the fact that Mr. Stephens simply attributed the quote to Bonhoeffer indicates that Wilkin’s approach didn’t communicate sufficient uncertainty about the quote’s origin. Furthermore, it occurs to me that she would have had a chance to educate a lot of people if she would have left Bonhoeffer out of it. In my opinion, CT and Wilkin should make a correction in the article.
At some point, Eric Metaxas was added to this Twitter thread and responded to Jen Wilkin with the following tweet:
To be clear, it’s not in my book anywhere, but it was used in the jacket copy.
— Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas) May 24, 2019
While it is true that the quote is not in the Bonhoeffer book and did appear on the jacket, it is also true that Metaxas included the quote in his other books spun off from the original (e.g., study guide, Miracles). He also tweeted it, led the book promo video with it, and used it in his public speaking appearances. For instance, here is a speech where Metaxas used and attributed the quote to Bonhoeffer even though he admitted he didn’t know the source.
This is in 2014. Even though he couldn’t find a source, he attributed the quote to Bonhoeffer anyway. Now the quote will never die.
Additional note: I recently learned that Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition took on fake quotes and included this one.
Wax’s conclusion about this quote:
The truth is, it’s not a Bonhoeffer quote. So don’t spread it.
More on the Bonhoeffer quote: