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 3,000 years. Almost everything we say, especially relating to Christo-centric interpretation, Greek and Hebrew linguistics or historical context, comes from commentaries and other sermons.
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 – after all, there is nothing new under the sun. On the other hand, we can’t copy another’s work and ideas and represent them as our own.
So, I generally 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. 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 Usually, I do not cite which commentary or author gave me the interpretation of a Greek or Hebrew word.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.
[John] 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.”
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 [my] 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 how truly unique the idea was.
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 three 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.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – J.D. Greear is the pastor of The Summit Church in Durham. Because of limited space, Greear’s column was not run in its entirety. Check out his April 13 post at jdgreear.com to read the complete article.)