A Sermon Full of Endnotes? Or Plagiarism?

I am very conscientious while preaching that I give credit to whom credit is due. This often means I quote each and every single commentator or author that inspired my conclusions. Any quotations are also credited to the author by name. I’ve visited with many pastoral colleagues who vary in how specific they get with quotations or material that was inspired by the thinking of a particular exegete or theologian. There is no hard rule, apparently.

There has been a recent phenomenon of more and more pastors being disciplined or fired for plagiarizing sermons from others. Now, if they are copying verbatim, then such action seems appropriate; but what about using the same outline or illustrations? This is where things get a bit murky. Obviously don’t share someone else’s personal illustration as if it were yours – that would just be stupid, not to mention bearing false witness (even if it’s a cool illustration).

Now back to me. I’ve heard it said (how’s that for a loose citation?) that someone who cites throughout the sermon is either fresh out of school and bound to the mentality that all knowledge is acquired knowledge and all sources for inspiration MUST be cited, or that one is insecure in stating his own conclusions and thus cites others for cover. After all, if Tim Keller said it, then it must be agreeable to the person who would otherwise think I’m off my rockers in owning something that would otherwise sound suspicious. Such citing can also a be a form of appealing to more credible authorities for endorsement of my own conclusions (“This sermon is Keller-Piper approved.”). This isn’t new, like most things under the sun, for the rabbis of old would also cite others along the same lines of appealing to authority and the academic requirements of the day.

Jesus spoke with authority for many reasons, but one of them was the authoritative distinction of speaking in His Father’s authority, or His own authority. I think preaching (mine included) needs to be modeled more after Jesus’ example (minus the appealing to one’s own authority, because, well, we’re not Jesus). I will try and cite less in future sermons and speak with more pastoral authority on the text when I think my conclusions are sound. I don’t need to relive the sermon preparation in the sermon itself. I found this following quote from Loraine Boettner (there I go citing again, but, hey, this is an article) quite helpful (from his book on the Millennium):

Anyone is at liberty to use material from this book with or without credit. In preparing this book the writer has received help from many sources, some acknowledged and many unacknowledged. He believes the material herein set forth to be a true statement of Scripture teaching, and His desire is to further, not to restrict it’s use.

Incidentally, I don’t agree with Boettner’s conclusions on the Millennium, but will take up his advice on how to use material in research and dissemination. There’s a sanctified form of plagiarizing that is whole-heartedly recommended. It was N.D. Wilson who said at a recent Grace Agenda Conference (2013) that his writing is only good so far as he’s ripping off God’s story. Good advice, indeed. 

© 2013, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.


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