The Scandal of Pulpit Plagiarism

A few quick thoughts I shot off to an inquiring friend this morning, on why Litton’s sermon borrowing/plagiarism is unthinkable to someone like John Piper. None of it based on private conversations, all simply what I know from his books, particularly his latest trilogy.

  • A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (2016)
  • Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (2017)
  • Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship (2018)

For Piper, authentic preaching (like authentic Bible reading) is not ultimately about discovering true comments on the text, finding its outline, inner logic, picking up on grammar cues, or accurately stating the text’s intent. No. It starts with the text, but soon goes beyond interpretive accuracy. The end of the biblical text is to disclose a divine glory. Scripture, in this sense, must be transfigured (as Alastair Roberts puts it). Or we must experience the telos of the text, its divine glory (as Richard Hays puts it in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [1989], 137).

This point is developed at length in Piper’s trilogy on the nature of Scripture, its reading, and its preaching. Scripture, in Piper’s words, is a window. And the goal of Bible reading and sermon proclamation is not to marvel at the window (the text) but to freshly see in and through the text, as seeing through the window, to behold and encounter the glories of the divine reality explained by the text.

This dynamic (for Piper and Roberts and Hays) stems from the complex text of 2 Corinthians 3:7–4:6. The net result is that, unveiled to Christ by the Spirit, every Bible reader can see more than words on a page but, through those words, we see and encounter the divine reality itself—its glory—Christ himself. When this happens, each of us, unblindfolded, beholds the same divine glory, but we see it from different and unique angles. We each come away from our encounter with Christ having seen and felt something we then work to put into words so others perhaps can see it, too. This encounter is essential to what the preacher brings into the pulpit on Sunday.

Of course, this holds true for daily Bible reading, too. So here’s Piper on what an ideal encounter with God in daily Bible reading would look like, all leading to a sermon.

I would resolve every day in reading my Bible to push through the haze of vague awareness to the very wording of the text. I would push into and through the wording of the text to the intention of the author’s mind, both human and divine. I would push into and through that intention of the author to the reality behind all the words and grammar and logic. I would push into that reality until it became an emotionally experienced reality with emotions that correspond to the nature of the reality. I would push into and through this proportionately emotional experience of the reality behind the text until it took form in word and deed in my life. I would push through this emotionally charged word and deed until others saw the reality and joined me in this encounter with God. (APJ 1197)

But back to the trilogy, here’s a paragraph from book one, A Peculiar Glory (2016).

As I said at the beginning, the Bible has not been for me like a masterpiece hanging on the wall of an Alpine chalet but rather like a window in the wall of the chalet, with the Alps on the other side. In other words, I have been a Christian all these years not because I had the courage to hold on to an embattled view of Scripture, but because I have been held happily captive by the beauty of God and his ways that I see through the Scriptures. (18)

And in his second book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally (2017), he explained why in his pre-pastorate years as a New Testament scholar he didn’t spend much time defending inerrancy. Instead,

mostly, my energies were devoted to looking through the inerrant window, not at the Bible’s “inerrancy” itself. I loved pushing students’ noses against the window pane of the first epistle of John, and the first epistle of Peter, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and the Gospel of Luke, and doing all I could, with prayer and modeling and asking good questions, to help them see the glory of this Christ-dominated landscape. (29)

Later in the same book.

All Paul’s letters—indeed all of the apostolic witness of the New Testament—bear the marks of this divine authority. These writings as a whole—not just a slice of them called “gospel”—are our window onto the glory of God. And through this window we see the peculiar glory of God by reading. (84)

A passion for Christ, by the Spirit, “is the key that throws open a thousand windows in Scripture to let in the brightness of God’s glory” (248). And in case this all sounds mystical or divorced from the text, it’s not, because “God’s glory does not float over the Bible like a gas. It does not lurk in hidden places separate from the meaning of words and sentences. It is seen in and through the meaning of texts” (299).

Finally, here’s a quote from the preaching book, the capstone, Expository Exultation (2018):

Preachers do not aim to draw people into their excitement with the shape of literary windows, but with the reality seen through the windows. We aim to draw our people’s minds and hearts to the world of glory, through the window of the Scriptures. The aim of preaching is that people experience the God-drenched reality perceived through the window of biblical words. Beware of making textual structures (whether microgrammatical structures or macrocanonical structures) the climax of preaching. Always keep before you the summons of the reality factor. (162)

All that to say, to borrow and copy from others shows a fundamental disconnect from the purpose of preaching. The preacher is to look in and through the window of Scripture, to encounter the glory there, and then to put this to words so that others (by the Spirit) are brought into the same encounter. To copy is to simply echo what others have seen. It’s a shortcut. But it’s inauthentic preaching, because it fails to originate from fresh seeing.

Thus, it’s rather easy to see why Piper finds it “utterly unthinkable” that “authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word.” Preaching is “expository exultation”—truth and explanation leading to exultation. The preacher is actively worshiping from his encounter with God. On the other hand, copied sermons “expose a failure on the part of the preacher to see the beauty of truth and feel the value of truth. He is having to go to someone else to see what he ought to see in the word. He is having to go to someone else to express the feelings he ought to feel when he reads the word. This is a symptom of something gone deeply wrong and in need of quick remedy in the preacher” (APJ 829).

Borrowing from others, whether blatantly plagiarized, or by announcing that you’ll be reading from a nineteenth century homily (sorry Alastair!), or by constructing your sermon as a patchwork of citations from other sources, simply means you failed to look through the window for yourself into the glorious reality of divine glory that gives the sermon its ultimate telos, its final reality, its glorious Object, and provides the fuel to sustain a man in worship over a text for forty minutes.

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