What Counts As Plagiarism in a Sermon?

Here’s an article from the Desiring God blog on plagiarism that I ran across recently.

The question of plagiarism in sermon preparation is rather tricky, primarily because we are interpreting a document (the Bible) which has been interpreted by thousands of people for the last 3000 years. Almost everything we say has already been said elsewhere. If not, we have reason to worry! If you come up with “something no one has ever seen before,” there might be a reason. The faith was committed “once for all” to the saint.

A while back I did a study of the official “rules” of plagiarism in preaching. They’re really hard to nail down. There are lots of articles written about it–people seem to agree that you don’t have to acknowledge every single instance when you gain an insight from someone else. On the other hand, we can’t copy another’s work and ideas and represent them as our own.

“Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.” That’s not a verse… but does that idea need to be cited to Anselm and the phrasing back to my middle school camp speaker (who I’m sure just plagiarized it from someone else)?

“Jesus is the true Noah, the ark in which we find shelter from God’s wrath.” That idea is not directly spelled out in the Bible. I heard it first from a Baptist preacher in high school, and most recently that idea has been popularized by Tim Keller. Do I need to cite either of them when I say it?

Does John Piper need to cite Jonathan Edwards when he advances the idea that God’s glory is demonstrated by our delight in him?

Generally, I operate by the following rules for myself:

1.     If I ever preach the gist of another person’s sermon, meaning that I used the lion’s share of their message’s organization, points, or applications, I give credit. I don’t ever think it’s a good idea to preach someone else’s sermon… but in those rare times when you feel like you just can’t help it, you have to give credit. A sermon is a major thought unit. If it’s not yours, you have to acknowledge where it came from.

2.    If I glean an interpretation of a passage from someone, but the organization of the points, application and presentation are my own, I generally do not feel the need to cite. After all, if it is a ‘new interpretation,’ it is probably heresy. We should be generally clear, however, that we are learning from others (this is the tricky part—how much and how often so to be honest and yet not overly cumbersome). Usually, I do not cite which commentary or author gave me the interpretation of a Greek or Hebrew word. Thus, I did not feel the need to explain when I learn a Hebrew or Greek nuance from MacArthur, Carson, Keller, Kidner, Kittel, or whomever.

Should you ever credit someone who illumines your mind to the real meaning of a passage? I think sometimes you should. For example, I learn a lot from Tim Keller and sometimes I’ll hear him interpret a passage in a way that blows my mind, but one that seems so natural and obvious to the text that I’m sure it is right–and it is so obvious that I wonder how everyone doesn’t see it that way. Often I’ll acknowledge my indebtedness to him, but if the title, organization, and wording of points  and application are my own, often I won’t.

Piper says it this way: “To base the structure of your sermon on someone else’s sermon, but to use your own words, is plagiarism. The author on whose work you are basing the structure of your sermon would need to be cited.” That is tough, because sometimes I feel like someone’s outline cannot be improved on, or it flows so logically out of the passage that you wonder how you could be faithful to the text and use any other outline! When I come up with the exact same outline they did, I feel like that outline is now mine and the texts, not just theirs. But, I try to be zealous and cite… though, admittedly, probably not often enough.

My manuscript, which we publish each week along with the sermon, is much more robust in its citations than the spoken word. Putting citations in manuscript does not mean you never have to cite, but it can serve as a good “safety measure” for those instances when you just aren’t sure.

3.     When I take a direct point or a line or the creative wording of a truth from someone, I feel like I should cite. I obey this rule… usually. The first 19 times I said “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” I cited Piper.  Now I only cite him on that phrase every other time. People at my church know where I got it from. A newcomer might think I am trying to imply that I made it up. But I would annoy my congregation to death if every time I mentioned it now I said, “As John Piper says…”

4.     When I give a list that someone else has come up with or offer some piece of cultural analysis, I feel like I should cite. Again, a list or an organizational scheme is a thought unit. The truths inside that structure may not be unique to that person, but the organization of the presentation of those points is.

5.     If I hear a story told by someone else that reminds me of a story of your own, and I tell that story from my own life, I don’t think I need always to identify where I got the idea for that story from originally. I frequently hear intros and applications for which I find corollaries in my own life. Sometimes I feel the need to cite where the idea originated, and sometimes I don’t… it’s kind of a gut thing that depends on on how truly unique the idea was. For example, Tim Keller tells a story about how he hated classical music in college and only studied it to graduate college to get a job to make money, but now he uses his money to go to classical music concerts because he has learned to love it. He uses that to explain the difference between Gospel-change and religious change. I found an analogy to that in my own life with a Drama/Theatre class I took in college. I didn’t make that up. I really took the class. Should I cite Keller as the inspiration for that story? Not sure. Probably. The first time I told that to my church, I noted that I had heard that explained by Keller. The 2nd and 3rd times I did not. Maybe I should have. It is a pretty unique story, but one I find corollaries to in my own life and that illustrates a very non-unique point quite well.

I once read Spurgeon to say that you should master a few authors to the point that you can predict what they will say before they say it. I heard Peter Kreeft and Keller say the same thing. And I have done just that. My dilemma is that I have listened to Tim Keller now so much that I tend to plagiarize him before even hearing him teach through a particular passage! By that I mean I know how he’ll spin a passage even before I hear him do it, and I will sometimes end up doing that even without hearing him teach on it. There’s a reason for that–I think he’s right in how he interprets the Bible. BTW, I told him that once, and he laughed and said he was the same way with Ed Clowney. And Ed Clowney was personal friends with Savanarola, and used to steal from his sermons, too.

I try to be as transparent as I can with my congregation that I am heavily indebted to some particular theologians and teachers, and even some friends. Recently these have included Keller, Lewis, Piper, Kreeft, Packer, MacDonald, Luther, Edwards, Powlison, Welch, Stanley, Driscoll, and others. We also publish a manuscript each week in which I try to be a little clearer about sources I am drawing from about various points. I’ve found that most of these guys are heavily indebted to their own set of people they draw from.

I want to be zealous so as not to represent myself as more brilliant and original than I really am. The truth is I have had only 3 truly original ideas in my life, and they were not really that good. Almost all the others have been learned from the historic church, both ancient and modern.

What are your thoughts? Can you help me think through this?

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  1. Bart Barber   •  

    Citation is important in academic work for many reasons. It seems to me that one of those reasons might apply equally well to preaching: When content has been cited well, it is so much easier to trace BAD content to its origin to identify it as such.

    How many stock preaching topics just appeared somewhere out of the ether (such as the idea that there was a gate called the “eye of the needle” somewhere in the Ancient Near East). Wouldn’t it be nice to know where that story first appeared? Wouldn’t that make it easier to assess whether the author of it knew something that the rest of us do not, or just made it up? If it were someone who had spent 60 years working in archaeology we might treat it differently than if it were one of Bart Barber’s sermons from the mid-80s (I absolutely SWEAR, it wasn’t me!).

  2. Timothy Haupt   •  

    Great article. I agree totally.

    I have struggled with this issue for years now. I live constantly with the tension of wanting to clearly avoid even the appearance of plagiarism, and yet be faithful to study a variety of sources to ensure that I am “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

    For better or worse, the pattern I have adopted is that I cite copiously in footnotes in my manuscript those sources from which I glean insights with regard to interpretation or application, and I make those manuscripts available to any who want them for further study. (I have a sweet 70 year old lady in my congregation who retrieves my manuscript every Sunday morning to read and re-read throughout the week!) However, to keep from being cumbersome, to avoid taking away from the verbal proclamation of the word of Christ in the name of Christ to the people of Christ, I usually only verbally cite those sources from which I directly quote. That said, I avoid using other people’s outlines, major units of thought, etc…

    It is a difficult question, because, as you make clear, the situation is “rather tricky, primarily because we are interpreting a document (the Bible) which has been interpreted by thousands of people for the last 3000 years.”

    I am interested to see what others say.

  3. Michael Kennedy   •  

    I tend to think Solomon’s words apply in many instances: “there is nothing new under the sun.” I doubt many of us have had a truly original thought. Piper has readily admitted that Edwards guided him into Desiring God. My fear is that if we are too rigid we could spend an entire sermon just on “footnotes.” This may be necessary in an academic paper but not in a sermon.

    I would say we need to give credit if we quote someone or use their sermon outline in full. I believe Dr. Akin said to footnote your manuscript in case someone asks about a specific part but that it is not always necessary to disclose all your footnotes in the sermon itself.

  4. Tim Smith   •  

    Regarding Piper’s standard of plagiarism, I agree with you J.D., that’s tough! Just because another pastor, especially an often-listened to pastor, might have come up with an outline or logical flow of the text before I did, do I have to cite him when I discover that in my research?

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