Many years ago, on a phone call with the legendary Scottish minister, Eric Alexander, I had one of the most meaningful conversations that I’ve ever had on the subject of preaching. In the course of that conversation, we began to discuss the requirement of the minister to give proper attribution to things borrowed from the minds of other pastors and theologians. I asked whether it was wrong that I had lifted three main points, for the broad structure of my sermon, from a sermon that he had once preached on the same passage. In his deep, gentle Scottish brogue, Alexander responded, “Oh no, no. I am sure that I have, at times, borrowed points from Spurgeon’s sermons without telling the congregation that I had done so.” This, in turn, reminded me of something that I had read about citing authors in J.W. Alexander’s formative volume, Thoughts on Preaching:
Where a man belongs to the class of productive minds, he will spontaneously seek retirement and self-recollection, after the laborious reading of some years. Whether he write or speak, he will do so from his own stores. It is true that much of what he so writes and speaks will be the result of long intimacy with other minds, but not in the way of rehearsal or quotation. Wise and happy quotation adds beauty and strength; but the general truth holds, that the highest order of minds is not given to abundant citation, except where the very question is one which craves authorities. Masculine thinkers utter the results of erudition, rather than erudition itself. For why should a man be so careful to remember what other men have said? Of all that he has read for years, much if not most, as to its original form, has irrevocably slipped away; and it is well that it is so, as the mind would else become a garret of unmanageable lumber. The mind is not a store or magazine, but partly a sieve, which lets go the refuse, and partly an alembic, which distills the “fifth essence.1
One of the mistakes that I have made in nearly a decade of preaching is that I quote and cite far too much. It is an overreaction to a hyper-sensitization that has developed concerning plagiarism in recent years. When I was in seminary, two students, were expelled for plagiarizing entire paragraphs from several well-known theologians. To steal paragraphs from someone else and to pass them off as your own is both wrong and foolish. The sad irony is that if those same students had block-quoted the paragraph they plagiarized, their professors would have rewarded them for being amateur writers; if they had foot-noted or, better yet, end-noted the same paragraph, their professors would have likely viewed them as scholars in progress. That being said, in preaching, we do not need to be afraid to take the great thoughts and words of others and press them through the “sieve [of our minds]…which distills” in order to make them our own. If you find a great thought in Calvin, the best thing to do is to turn it over in your mind, polish it, reduce it to something manageable and add to it for the benefit of those to whom you preach. There is no need to feel as though you must quote and cite every thought that you glean from others. If you did so consistently, I am almost certain that 95% of every sermon preached would be a mere recitation of what you have read or heard from others.
To be sure, there is almost nothing original in any of our minds. Any thought that we consider original is certainly nothing but the repackaging, organization, expansion and development of thoughts that we have gleaned from the minds and writings of others. In this regard, we cannot say that refinements or progressions of thoughts are “original.” At times, a friend will tell me that they read something that I have said in a well-known theological work. I have, no doubt, also picked it up in the volume to which my friend referred–but had learned it so long ago that I was not conscious of it.
At the end of the day, we need rules to help guide us through the process of avoiding plagiarism without simply falling into the trap of quoting and citing too much in preaching. Here are four personal rules that help me avoid plagiarism while encouraging me to judiciously and appropriately quote and cite others:
1. Read extensively. The minister most in danger of falling into the pit of plagiarism in preaching is the man who is intellectually lazy. When ministers pass off whole sermons from a well-known pastor/theologian (and this seems to happen on more occasions than one could estimate in our day), it is clear that they have not dilgently given themselves to “reading, exhortation and doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:13). The Apostle Paul promised Timothy that if he would do so “all will see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). A diligent thinker will not steal intellectual property from others since he himself has plenty of his own intellectual property.
2. Make Other’s Thoughts Your Own for the Benefit of Others. When you come across a particularly profound thought in a respected theologian or preacher, turn it around in your mind, meditate on it, build on it, reword it and pass it onto others without feeling the need to cite the original source. This is not plagiarism–it is creative thinking and distillation. Learning from others in order to pass on truths is a biblical pattern. The Apostle Paul charged Timothy with the following exhortation: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). All of the theologians and preacher from whom we learn are to be seen as mentors instructing us so that we may, in turn, instruct others.
3. Quote and Cite Sparingly. Learn to quote and cite other theologians and preachers on a limited basis. While pastors should be constantly passing on solid truths from the Scriptures–many of which they have read or heard from others–they should not feel compelled to quote or cite every author from which they have learned some particular truth. Illustrious statements from the annals of church history should be cited appropriately. If Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones have worded a particular truth in a profound way, then we should cite them accordingly when we employ such renowned statements. Otherwise, we should quote and cite little. Unless we are trying to pass off as our own the bulk of what someone else has said in their own sermon, we should not fear being charged with plagiarism for making truths that we have heard in others our own.
4. Memorize quotes. When quoting something that someone has said or written, we do well if we seek to memorize the precise phraseology of the quote. One benefit of this approach is that it makes for a less laborious delivery. As noted above, I quote and cite far too much in my sermons. If, during the course of a sermon, I read a section from another theologian that is more than a sentence or two, my preaching feels less like preaching and more like lecturing. If you memorize the bulk of what someone else has said, you gain both the freedom for delivery as well as the freedom to give the general sense of what someone else has said. This makes quoting more natural in preaching. I am constantly seeking to make progress in this area. It takes much more mental labor on the front end of preparation, but yields exponential fruit in the act of preaching.
The process of knowing when to quote and when to make something your own is a lifelong process. There will never be a time when a minister has so matured that he will be free from wrestling through how to use the thoughts of others without plagiarizing them and without over attribution in preaching. As with every other part of sermon preparation, this takes great mental labor. There is one thing that I am certain of in this regard, the intellectually diligent minister is the least likely to fall into either ditch.
1. J.W. Alexander Thoughts on Preaching (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1861) pp. 199-200