Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Pastoral plagiarism

The Driscoll affair raises a number of ethical issues...which aren't confined to Driscoll. 
i) I'm struck by how gleeful some of his critics are. They are gloating over his self-inflicted wounds. They were hoping all along that he would say or do something to precipitate his downfall. 
Critics of that stripe need to be honest with themselves about their motivations. They wouldn't carry on and on about an endnote if they weren't opposed to Driscoll before the fateful interview. 
ii) It's a pity to see him self-destruct. He was, at one time, a force for good. He took socially conservative positions in one of the bluest of blue states. His operation is headquartered in King County, which is the bluest county in the heart of a deep-dyed blue state. So the local power elite was always gunning for him. 
Driscoll has made a lot of enemies over the years, so they've been sharpening their knives, spoiling for him to make a serious misstep. Unfortunately for him, he's been playing right into the hands of his waiting enemies.

If the liberal establishment brings him down, it will then turn on his evangelical critics. It's like watching a lion attack another man. The lion is momentarily distracted by his fresh kill. But if you loiter too long, he will look up from his victim, notice you, and come after you. What begins with Driscoll doesn't end with Driscoll. 

iii) What about the issue of pastoral plagiarism? Did you know that Spurgeon was a plagiarist? 
If Spurgeon had been a seminary student at the time, he would have been expelled. 
iv) When does  a pastor cross the line into plagiarism? Do we expect a sermon to be the product of original research? That would be unrealistic.
Suppose a pastor is preaching a series of expository sermons on a book of the Bible. Suppose he has half a dozen good commentaries on that book of Scripture which he consults in preparation for each sermon. Suppose his interpretation is often based on what he reads in two or three commentaries.
Do we expect him to give full citation from the pulpit? That would be unrealistic. A sermon is not a book. Oral communication has different conventions than an article in Novum Testamentum
Do sermons have footnotes? Depends on whether a pastor writes out his sermon in full. Some do, but others use an outline. Some pastors don't like to be tied to a script. They want the freedom to ad lib. Rely on the inspiration of the moment.
There's a difference between composing a sermon in the privacy of your study, and speaking before a live audience. Seeing real faces. Familiar faces. Associations may come to mind in the course of preaching. 
Suppose the pastor not only gets his interpretation from a commentary, but uses some of the wording. Is that plagiarism? What sort of attribution should he give from the pulpit? 
Do we expect a pastor to express everything in his own words? Keep in mind that by academic standards, paraphrasing a source can also be plagiarism. 
v) Famous pastors often publish their sermons. Their published sermons may be transcriptions of what they said from the pulpit. Not literary productions, but recorded sermons which an anonymous assistant dutifully transcribes. The editorial work of turning sermons into publishable manuscripts may be delegated to assistants. 
A pastor may not even proofread the MS. Moreover, even if he does, he may not remember the source of his ideas five years after he delivered the sermon. 
Some famous pastors have a very long paper trail. If you were to comb through their published sermons, it wouldn't be at all surprising if you could uncover examples of borrowed material that violates academic standards of citation. 
vi) It's certainly possible for a pastor to be guilty of plagiarism. But instead of tossing around facile charges of plagiarism based on models of academic publishing, we need to specify what standards are suited to the more informal nature of preaching. 
To take a comparison, I've been running across a lot of arguments for cessationism lately. I notice that these are not original arguments. These are stock arguments which are typically borrowed and recycled, without attribution, from earlier writers. Technically, many popular modern cessationists are guilty of plagiarism. If these were seminary term papers, they'd be expelled. 


  1. Steve,

    If Driscoll within the chapter in question was drawing upon the ideas of Jones without quoting, then acceptable form would be a comment or footnote at the outset saying to the effect that "what follows is drawn from" or "indebted to" with the name of the author, the book and chapter or pages enclosed for the sake of reference and credit. This would be acceptable form, unless one where writing verbatim from the source

  2. I think MacArthur was guilty of lots of plagiarism in his book A Tale of Two Sons-

    But in the end, I think he redeemed himself with a truer gospel than the person that he plagiarized.

    As you say Steve, I suppose MacArthur is a "popular modern cessationist" but I certainly wouldn't expel him. I just wouldn't give him a good grade for originality.