In every preaching class I teach, the crucial question always comes up. What do you think about sermon plagiarism? A junior high boy still lives inside of this man, so I offer a one word response. “Bad.” I teach at the graduate level, so my students won’t accept easy answers to complex questions. They want to know why I think plagiarism is “bad.” I’m not going to spell out my rationale here, since my thoughts on the issue are not really the issue. If you want to check out (or pick apart) my convictions, check out this article I wrote a while back: http://lennyluchetti.blogspot.com/2011/02/my-thoughts-on-preaching-another.html
I am writing this article as a student not a professor. I want to probe one of my preaching professors on the topic of sermon plagiarism. The only problem is that my professor has been dead for more than 1500 years. He did, however, address my concern in his writing.
My professor is St. Augustine. I was recently reading, for about the tenth time, his book IV from On Christine Doctrine. This 4th century theologian treats sermon plagiarism in a unique and hard-hitting way. What does Augustine think? He writes:
“For those who steal take what does not belong to them, but the word of God belongs to all who obey it; and it is the man who speaks well, but lives badly, who really takes the words that belong to another. For the good things he says seem to be the result of his own thought, and yet they have nothing in common with his manner of life. And so God has said that they steal His words who would appear good by speaking God's words, but are in fact bad, as they follow their own ways. And if you look closely into the matter, it is not really themselves who say the good things they say. For how can they say in words what they deny in deeds? It is not for nothing that the apostle says of such men: ‘They profess that they know God, but in works they deny Him.’" (chapter 29, paragraph 63).
Did you catch how Augustine defines plagiarism? He does not condemn the preaching of someone else’s sermon, as I often do in class. According to Augustine, if we preach someone else’s sermon but we’ve submitted our lives to the reality we preach, we avoid plagiaristic theft. This does not give us license to preach someone else’s sermon without giving that person credit. A few sentences before the section cited above Augustine writes, “Now, if such men take what has been written with wisdom and eloquence by others, and commit it to memory, and deliver it to the people, they cannot be blamed, supposing them to do it without deception.” “Without deception” is Augustine’s way of saying “give credit to whom credit is due,” to the one whose thoughts drive the sermon you preach.
What is plagiarism, then, according to Augustine? Sermon plagiarism happens not simply when a preacher preaches another person’s sermon. Sermon plagiarism can happen even if we preach our own original words. But if our lives do not align with the reality we preach, we plagiarize. In other words, plagiarism is a form of hypocrisy in which the preacher proclaims what she does not live. So, if I preach on the importance of submission to God but don’t practice it, I am a plagiarist. If I preach on giving generously to the poor but remain as stingy as the young Ebenezer Scrooge, I am a plagiarist. If I call people to racial reconciliation based on Gospel convictions not political conventions but embody exclusion, I am a plagiarist.
Augustine’s take on plagiarism is refreshing, because it’s unusual and more thoughtful than most. After the refreshing wind of his words hits my face I am struck by the loving slap of his challenge. Augustine is not asking us to be perfect. He is calling us, as far as I can tell, to be preachers who strive by grace to practice what we preach. If we don’t we are the worst kind of plagiarist.