Reliably sourcing a quote about the church
April 30, 2013 1:28 PM   Subscribe

I have two quotes about the Christian church from very disparate sources and I am trying to ascertain if either of the sources in question actually ever said or wrote what is attributed to them.

"The church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners." - generally attributed to Saint Augustine.

"The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." - generally attributed to Abigail Van Buren.

It would seem reasonable to conclude that Ms. Van Buren was quoting Augustine but I am having a difficult time finding a reliable attribution of the quote to Augustine. Does this actually appear in his writings?

Or, is there a time-travel explanation that I'm overlooking?
posted by DWRoelands to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total)
Well, here's a source for the Dear Abby quote, her column from March 29, 1964. She doesn't mention Augustine at all.
posted by themanwho at 1:41 PM on April 30, 2013

I really doubt they had hotels in 430 AD and if they had hospitals they were places were you went to die. So it seems highly improbably Saint Augustine said that. (OK they had inns but were inns known for their luxury?)
posted by interplanetjanet at 1:50 PM on April 30, 2013

Similar dilemma hashed out on another forum.

Looks like this can only be definitively traced to Dear Abby. No evidence for St. Augustine. Plenty of evidence going back to the 2nd century for a general "church as spiritual hospital" metaphor.
posted by deanc at 1:50 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

This seems like a paraphrase of Mark 2:17.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:51 PM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

"The Longer-Lasting Inspirational Bathroom Book" (how's that for authoritative?) attributes the quote to George Craig Stewart, bishop of Chicago (1879-1940) and gives a list of quotation dictionaries as sources.

That's 2 nearly-contemporary sources from Chicago.
posted by themanwho at 1:59 PM on April 30, 2013

I was prepared to attribute it to St. John Chrysostom's commentary on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and his famous quote of "For here there is a hospital and not a court of law". This distinction might be the greatest difference between eastern and western soteriology. I agree that these sentiments are ultimately derived from Mark 2:17. And, he definitely has a visible church in mind.

As for this specific quote, it is Dear Abby's. I guess she is better known in North America than St. John Chrysostom, so whatever gets the message out there!
posted by Tanizaki at 7:01 PM on April 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

There seems to be a contemporary oral tradition of this coming from Augustine, but I can't find a primary source. If you research Augustine's rivalry with Donatism, you will see a number of contemporary theological writings that attribute the hospital analogy to him. Interestingly, though, there is never a direct reference to a primary source. What is often referenced correctly, too, is that Augustine argued quite a bit that the church is not made up of inherently good people, but people who were in the process of being transformed. So, those in authority don't derive their authority due to an issue of their own holiness, for example. Holiness is derived from Christ, not because of goodness inherent in the members. I think the hospital reference has been an inferred analogy from this primary discussion, and has been passed around and borrowed a bit by more than one person discussing his writings. It's not inconsistent with his theology, but there isn't a direct quote along these lines that I can find.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:03 PM on April 30, 2013

I hear this quote used over and over by my Orthodox priest raised in the Anglican tradition who I will swear on a stack of bibles has never read Dear Abbey (his shorthand for western decadence is Oprah). I think it's a very nice paraphrase of a commonly held position in the early church/Eastern Orthodoxy.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:55 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Or, is there a time-travel explanation that I'm overlooking?

Basically, a huge increase in misattribution during sharing/retweeting/re-e-mailing of quotes. Sometimes it's just a list of quotes and who said what gets jumbled. Other times, it's because the original source is not well known and somebody must think it needs a famous name to be a quote (see "Wear sunscreen"). It's endemic. I see a bogus quote every day or two on Facebook and it grates. A quotation I saw the other day was attributed to Gandhi, but appears to be an inspirational author's work from the 1990s or even 2000s. Frustratingly, such misattributions have begun finding their way into contemporary publications, so it seems like there's a source.

You can often spot such misattributions simply from anachronistic language, e.g.

"Don't believe everything you read on the Internet. -- A. Lincoln"

Anyway, at least one of the formulations may trace to this 1931 address by Stewart:

I know it has been full of sinners. What did you think the Church was, a club for shining saints? But if it has been a hospital for sinners, it has also been a training school for saints....
posted by dhartung at 3:27 AM on May 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's very like this 1899 quote here

Once more, the Katharit were those who made God's holiness His interpretative attribute, and in consequence conceived of the Church as an exclusive drawing-room for saints instead of a hospital for sinners
posted by Flitcraft at 4:22 PM on May 1, 2013

« Older Worm in pasta - What should I do?   |   Where can I go to enjoy wind blowing through trees... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.