It is extremely important when quoting someone to find the reference for said quotation. I can’t emphasize that enough. It is very easy to attribute a quote to someone and have it spread, especially in these days of instantaneous communication. Slap a few words together, throw quote marks around it, and attribute it to someone famous and it may show up in a book later. One extreme example of this is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who’s quote about speaking and action is pretty much confirmed to be entirely made up. That quote has been proliferated all over the internet, in some publications, and even on the Senate floor of the United States. The alleged quote is:
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. -Probably not Bonhoeffer
That quote is really good! Kudos to whoever wrote it. But that person almost certainly was not Bonhoeffer. Some investigating by other people helped reveal the possible origins of this quote, but again, it wasn’t Bonhoeffer. Yet, when one looks for art of Bonhoeffer or pictures of him with quotes, this is perhaps the most frequently attributed quotation.
Another quote that I found alleging to be from Bonhoeffer is:
A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.
I spent a few hours digging through my collected volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English after I searched for a few hours online in vain trying to find the attribution for this quote. What I did turn up in this search is interesting, because it makes this attribution much trickier. Turning to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, one finds in volume 11 his discussion of a history of systematic theology a very similar quote.
Then, as I spent more time trying to find the source, I turned up someone else citing a collection of Bonhoeffer’s sayings that may have quoted it. So then, I searched for that work alongside the quote, which yielded that this quote is said to be from Bonhoeffer’s catechism with Hildebrandt. So, I got out my volume of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Works in English that had that catechism–ironically, still volume 11–and looked it up. There it was, black and white, but with a slightly different wording:
A god who could be proved by us would be an idol.
There it is. DBWE 11:260.
A massive fist pump and a lot of theology/academic nerd joy later, I am now able to reveal that this quote is not spurious and does indeed exist in Bonhoeffer’s corpus. To be fair, it should probably be cited as not just from Bonhoeffer but also Franz Hildebrandt, with whom he co-wrote the draft of the catechism.
But this exercise has taught me again something very important that everyone should take to heart. Cite your sources. It will save other people a lot of time and energy. More importantly, it’s a good exercise for you. Another thing I learned: keep digging.
Regarding anyone, don’t just trust a meme with their picture and name on it as being an actual quote. The spurious quote about “silence in the face of evil” has been spread far afield, even being quoted in the US Congress, despite it not actually being from Bonhoeffer. We need to exercise care in assuming quotes are genuine. Also, be sure when you share quotes to include the source–that way you help others and demonstrate you’ve done the work as well.
To celebrate finding the actual source, I made a meme of it for another of my Facebook pages, “Dank Lutheran Memes.” Check it out.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer– Come read all of my posts about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
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