Eric Metaxas has become a parody of himself. Others have chronicled his journey down the Trump rabbit hole over the past weeks (see links below). This post returns to the fake Bonhoeffer quote he made famous. Now he apparently wants it for himself.
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. God will not hold us guiltless.”
— Eric Metaxas
Metaxas has bought into the election delusion of Donald Trump and taken a leadership role among those who are promoting it. This quote somehow is meant to vindicate his action supporting Trump. What is odd about it that he appears to be taking credit for it.
To my knowledge, he has never fully acknowledged that he attributed the quote falsely to Bonhoeffer in his books on the subject in the first place. He minimized his role in spreading the false attribution after I published a series ofposts showing that the quote cannot be sourced to the great German pastor.
Now instead of to Bonhoeffer, he falsely attributes the quote to himself. Anything but set the record straight, I guess. What should we expect from a guy who has put his faith and trust in Donald Trump?
Others who have written regarding Eric Metaxas’ journey into election madness include:
Although this is entirely predictable, I want to preserve the moment. Eric Metaxas believes he saved Bonhoeffer’s legacy from the cultural Marxist academics who study Bonhoeffer for a living.
The culturally marxist academics who hijacked Bonhoeffer’s legacy for fifty years — until the 2009 publication of my biography — and who unconscionably pushed a profound misreading of his thinking & theology, are at it again. Feel free to guffaw. https://t.co/N2tvhDk1NS
It is a fine statement of objections to Trump’s term in office and Wallis offers some sobering parallels to Christian sentiment about Hitler during the 1930s and 1940s. The cultish devotion to Trump does mimic some things said about Hitler. I can understand support for certain of Trump’s policy positions, but I cannot understand the slavish fealty to Trump as a man. This is idolatrous and dangerous. I urge you to read the IBS statement and support their work. They are fine and serious scholars.
Metaxas’ tweet exposes more about him than it does about the Bonhoeffer Society. It is one thing to believe you have a significant perspective to add to a field, it is quite another to believe you alone have the truth. Bonhoeffer scholars have documented significant omissions and problems in Metaxas’ book on Bonhoeffer. He scoffs at their work and fails to respond in a scholarly manner. Mostly, he told journalist Jon Ward, he ignores them:
The handful of early negative reviews of my book on Bonhoeffer have not struck me as substantive, or as anything more than ideological griping, so I have labored to ignore them.
This is the way of so many Christian celebrities. Metaxas, like David Barton and Dinesh D’Souza, portrays an arrogance about his work. They are above correction and error. Any criticism is ideological and therefore beneath them.
And so it goes. Metaxas continues his labor. It must be a hard labor because these days there is so much he has to ignore.
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.
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. ?
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.
On April 9, 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp at Flossenburg Germany. He had been involved in getting Jews out
of Germany and resistance to the Nazi regime. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, Bonhoeffer was killed along with his brother and other conspirators. A brief but helpful summary of Bonhoeffer’s work against the Nazis can be found at the Holocaust Museum website.
The Church and the Jewish Question
Setting the stage for his resistance activities was a paper written in 1933 titled, “The Church and the Jewish Question.” I can’t find it online but you can see it in Google books preview of The Bonhoeffer Reader and Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. In it, Bonhoeffer sets forth a relationship between church and state which might seem foreign to modern day evangelicals who support Christian nationalism. Even though Bonhoeffer, as a churchman, did intervene in his government, it was a last resort under the most extreme of circumstances. According to the Bonhoeffer, “There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state. The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state.” He added that there is a “radical separation between the place of the gospel and the place of the law.” According to Bonhoeffer, the “true church of Christ, which lives by the Gospel alone and knows the nature of state actions, will never interfere in the functioning of state actions in this way. by criticizing its history-making actions from the standpoint of, say, any humanitarian ideal.”
Rather, according to Bonhoeffer, the church may critique the state as either creating too much or too little law to fulfill the governmental function. The church may rightly complain if the state uses “force to such a degree as to rob the Christian faith of its right to proclaim its message.” On the other hand, if the state doesn’t create enough law and as a result a group is deprived of rights, the church may also speak. “There is too little law and order wherever a group of people are deprived of its rights,” he wrote. In such cases, there are three actions which the church may take.
First, (as we have said) questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to victims of the state’s action. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action by the church itself.
In his essay, Bonhoeffer cited a threat of too little law when a group of citizens is deprived of rights. On the other extreme of too much law, his example was the church being told that baptized Jews must be excluded from Christian congregations or banning missions to Jews. Bonhoeffer asserted that “the church cannot allow the state to prescribe for it the way it treats its members.”
Bonhoeffer did not say that the state cannot create laws which touches the religious beliefs of individuals. He distinguished between the church as an entity and individual Christians when he wrote the following:
At the other extreme from too little law and order, there can be too much law and order. This would mean the state developing its use of force to such a degree as to rob the Christian faith of its right to proclaim its message. (This does not apply to restriction of free conscience — that would be the humanitarian version, which is an illusion, since every state in its life impinges on the so-called free conscience).
As a possible case in point, I have a sense that Bonhoeffer would reject the state making pastors officiate at gay weddings, but he might not have a problem with anti-discrimination laws regarding Christians providing services in the marketplace.
Bonhoeffer’s essay provides a useful foundation for considering how Christians today could consider religious liberty and church and state relationships. In his day, he chose to intervene because there was too much law. My reaction is that many religious liberty issues which occupy Christians politically today don’t rise to the level of “too much law” as framed by Bonhoeffer. I would like to see the church spend more time and money on fulfilling Bonhoeffer’s second point. As for his third point, in America, in my opinion the essential Christian message is in no danger of government restriction.
Additional reading: The Bonhoeffer Quote That Isn’t Bonhoeffer’s
Eric Metaxas lives in a curious space among those who admire and study German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In one universe dominated by evangelicals outside of academia, Metaxas is viewed as a Bonhoeffer scholar. In another dominated by academics and Bonhoeffer scholars, he is considered to be a Bonhoeffer revisionist, someone who has hijacked Bonhoeffer perhaps for partisan religious purposes.
Yesterday on his radio show, Metaxas took aim at the latter group. His guest on the program was Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn. Arnn, a Winston Churchill scholar, told Metaxas about a recent talk at Hillsdale by the widow of Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert. In the course of the discussion with Mrs. Gilbert, the subject of Bonhoeffer came up. Arnn said all of the information about Bonhoeffer in the room came from Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer bio. Listen (at about 3:15 in the podcast):
There are a number of liberal critics of my book. I keep seeing stuff on the Internet and they’re very vicious and they act as though I threw something together over a weekend to suit my view of the world, you know, wrapped in the life of Bonhoeffer and I just want to use this opportunity, since I am not typically talking about my book on Bonhoeffer. Anybody who is a historian on any level whether professionally, academically, or more as an amateur as I am, you know you want to take facts very seriously. And I do want to say that there’s not a syllable in my Bonhoeffer book that isn’t true and I think that people who don’t like how Bonhoeffer comes out in my book, that’s really something that reveals where they’re coming from more than where Bonhoeffer or I are coming from because his is such a well documented life.
Taking a page from David Barton, Metaxas reduces his critical reviewers to liberals when in fact at least some of the critical “stuff” is coming from conservative evangelicals. For instance, one of the more scathing reviews of Metaxas’ book was written by Richard Weikart, an evangelical professor who is also a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute. The Discovery Institute promotes intelligent design and is anything but a haven for liberals. Here is what Weikart says about accuracy in Metaxas’ book:
Let’s start with the historical problems. Metaxas read enough about Bonhoeffer’s life to get many facts right about the events of Bonhoeffer’s life. This is the strongest part of the biography. Even here, however, there are some major problems. For instance, Metaxas mistakenly claims, “From the beginning of his time until the end, Bonhoeffer maintained the daily discipline of scriptural meditation and prayer he had been practicing for more than a decade. . . . Once he got his Bible back he read it for hours each day.” (p. 438) This portrait will certainly make Bonhoeffer popular among serious evangelicals, but unfortunately this image is false. In 1944 Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge, “Once again I’m having weeks when I don’t read the Bible much.” Bonhoeffer had told Bethge the same thing twice before in 1941 and 1942. 
Metaxas also does not have a solid grasp on Bonhoeffer’s historical context. It is hard to give much credence to someone writing about German history who thinks that Bonn is in Switzerland or that Hitler was democratically elected into office or that Germany was not yet a police state in August 1934. Metaxas also claims that the Barmen Declaration, which was the doctrinal statement of the Confessing Church, rejected anti-Semitism. In reality, the Barmen Declaration does not mention anti-Semitism at all, and many scholars have criticized it for this.
Remember Weikart is not a liberal.
To fact check the claim about the Barmen Declaration, all one has to do is read the declaration (source) and compare it to what Metaxas wrote about it in the Bonhoeffer bio on page 222.
On the last three days of May 1934, the leaders of the Pastors’ Emergency League held a synod in Barmen. It was there, on the Wupper River, that they wrote the famous Barmen Declaration, from which emerged what came to be known as the Confessing Church.
The purpose of the Barmen Declaration was to state what the German church had always believed, to ground it in the Scriptures, and to differentiate it from the bastardized theology that had been coming from the German Christians. It made clear that the German church was not under the authority of the state; it repudiated the anti-Semitism and other heresies of the German Christians and their “official” church led by Müller. (emphasis added)
As Weikart said, the Barmen Declaration doesn’t address anti-Semitism. Metaxas said the document repudiated it.
Two other Bonhoeffer scholars have written critical reviews which point out some of the book’s errors. I don’t know the political views of Victoria Barnett or Clifford Green but I do know they know their Bonhoeffer. They point out many syllables which should be examined (See Barnett’s review here, and Green’s here).
For my part, I have documented that the quote Metaxas attributes to 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 — did not come from Bonhoeffer’s works. In fact, I have repeatedly asked Metaxas for a citation for the quote or, in absence of a source, a retraction and he has never responded.*
Even though I am confident in my work, I cannot imagine claiming that it is flawless or infallible. In fact, people who claim such perfection should arouse our skepticism. Rather than bask in the glow of his guest’s flattery, I hold out hope that Metaxas might eventually take a more reasonable and scholarly approach.
Later in the broadcast, Dr. Arnn suggested that Metaxas consider college teaching. I do not second that motion. One must be prepared to accept peer review and critical reflection in order to do so. Apparently, Metaxas believes he has no need of such refinement.
*This is not the first time Metaxas has minimized his factual errors. See his response to significant problems with the historical accounts in his new book, If You Can Keep It (link, link). See also this new review at Christ and Pop Culture.