Preachers, Plagiarism And What To Do With My Peter O’Brien Commentaries

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was shocked and saddened.

To hear that some of Peter O’Brien’s commentaries were being ‘pulled’ by his publisher was a bit of a blow. If you are not aware of what I’m talking about, let me briefly fill you in on the story…

hebrews1The commentaries under scrutiny are Peter O’Brien’s treatments of Ephesians, Philippians and Hebrews. In many people’s opinion, these are some of the finest commentaries in their field. I have used all of them with enormous profit. I have preached through Hebrews and Ephesians with more than a little help from these rich and insightful commentaries. They are not just good – they are simply outstanding.

However on August the 15th 2016  Wm. B. Eerdmans released this bombshell:

Eerdmans editors compared the text of The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2010) with various secondary sources and submitted findings to external experts for verification. Summing up the findings, Editor-in-chief James Ernest said, “Our own editors and our outside consultants agreed that what we found on the pages of this commentary runs afoul of commonly accepted standards with regard to the utilization and documentation of secondary sources. We agreed that the book could not be retained in print. Examination of the same author’s Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC, 1999) and Epistle to the Philippians (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1991) found them less pervasively flawed but still untenable.

Peter O’Brien, apparently, was presented with these findings. He responded with the following admission:

“In the New Testament commentaries that I have written, although I have never deliberately misused the work of others, nevertheless I now see that my work processes at times have been faulty and have generated clear-cut, but unintentional, plagiarism. For this I apologize without reservation.”

From this statement – and what I can glean elsewhere – it appears that some of the ‘technical’ sections of the commentaries have been inadvertently (according to O’Brien) plagiarised from other commentators. I personally don’t find it much of a ‘stretch’ to imagine this being quite possible. One could easily imagine, perhaps, O’Brien taking copious notes from commentaries maybe decades before – and then later, when coming to write a commentary, losing track of where the original notes came from.

This is not to excuse the error. Rigour in checking sources is one of the requirements for any successful scholar. But even scholars are human. Quite possibly this is a case of poor scholarship, rather than a blatant attempt to ape someone else’s work.

The situation is sad in more ways than one. On a personal level, I have heard only good things about Peter O’Brien the man. I know friends who have sat under his tutelage at Moore Theological College in Sydney who speak of him in the highest regard. On the one occasion where I have heard him speak, I was impressed by both his grasp of Ephesians as well as his gracious manner. I can only hope that this incident will be viewed with charity as well as discernment.

It is also distressing from the point of view of the commentaries themselves. Because of what has occurred, the publisher has indicated that sales of the commentaries will cease. The remaining stocks will be mashed to pulp. This may be the right thing to do; I am not criticising it. But it is a desperate situation.

Can plagiarism be a problem for preachers? I’m pretty sure it can be. Indeed all this recent controversy triggered a memory for me…Quite a number of years ago, I found myself on the receiving end of some “sermon plagiarism.” A man from another country contacted me by letter, admitting that he had plagiarised some of my sermons and others of my colleague. An entire series had been listened to on the church website. The sermons had then been written down and preached word for word in the man’s own church. A guilty conscience eventually got to him and he confessed to his elders. He then wrote me a subsequent letter of apology.

I was shocked. In the first instance I was stunned by the fact that someone had bothered stealing my sermons! (if I was Tim Keller, I mightn’t have been so surprised!). But it did raise the troubling question, in the age of the internet how many preachers are actually preaching other people’s sermons? If they were put through the plagiarism checker, how many sermons would be in danger of falling foul?

I heard an anecdote from a preacher-friend who said he was visiting a church on holiday. He arrived in this random church, only to hear a sermon from John Stott. Not the actual John Stott, you understand. No John Stott’s Ephesians commentary was being preached from the pulpit! My friend knew the Stott commentary well enough to recognise it!

Now let’s be clear about this: every preacher is a plagiariser to some extent. We might call ourselves plagiarisers with a small p, rather than Plagiarisers with a capital P. In my own preparation, I am indebted to commentaries and sermons that aid my understanding and stimulate my thinking. Every sermon that I preach is in some measure the product of an extended conversation with others. Do I have an original thought in my head? Probably not.

However there is a difference – and it isn’t really a fine one – between conversing with other people’s material, and using it verbatim. That, fellow pastors, isn’t learning from others – that is stealing.

So practically speaking, how can we steer clear of this sort of thing? At times I feel this is easier said than done. Facing the pressures of a busy week, we can face the strong temptation to borrow a passage from here and another passage from there.

What will help us then to stay on the right side of the line?

  • Have a basic commitment not to plagiarise. Decide that its wrong, and never soften that conviction (even if its Saturday and your staring at a white sheet of paper!).
  • Be ruthlessly honest with God, yourself and others. 
  • Believe that God has called you to be in ministry. That means God must have gifted you for the task. (And  if you don’t feel you are gifted to prepare sermons, then why are you a full-time bible teacher?)
  • Put your study notes/commentaries away when you actually come to write your sermon out. This is what I do. It helps me find my own voice in the sermon.
  • Put things across your way. Yes, even if you are not as eloquent as a D.A Carson or a John Stott. You might not write or speak as eloquently as them, but at least it will be you who is preaching.
  • Let the congregation know when you are quoting. It is OK to borrow things – providing you own up. I have, on more than one occasion, told the congregation that I am using some other preacher’s headings. And there is no crime in saying:  “John Stott puts things better than I can when he says…”
  • Remember, its not a competition.
  • If you feel a strong temptation to plagiarise, or if you have plagiarised, seek immediate help. Pray about it. If its relevant, repent of it, and talk to your fellow leaders about it. Discuss it with someone you trust and ask the question: what is driving this desire to plagiarise?

There are probably others things that could be added. But these are at some of the tactics I am seeking to employ in a YouTube world.

And what about those Peter O’Brien commentaries?

I reckon I’ll keep them. I can’t escape the fact that I have found them incredibly useful. To throw them out would be like tossing out the best tool in my tool box – a tool that has helped me solve many a problem.

So they will remain on my shelf. But I suppose every time I open them, I will be reminded of the dangers of plagiarism.

4 thoughts on “Preachers, Plagiarism And What To Do With My Peter O’Brien Commentaries

  1. Thanks for the post Colin. I was wholly unaware of the goings on here. Like you I’ve found his commentaries enormously helpful and, like you, I have no intention of getting rid of them. Lord willing God will still use Dr. O’Brien’s work.

  2. Hi Colin. I had a lot of the same wrestling thoughts as you did? I decided to keep my copies too. I wonder if an appropiate action point for preachers to consider especially if they preach a full manuscript is too footnote there manuscripts too?. It will also help gauage who has shaped your thinking and act as a good referencing tool.

  3. So if you had these in say, Logos, are they going to do a 1984 vanish on you? Also, since in the not-to-distant past and in the present in places that aren’t America or Western Europe nobody would bat an eyelash at this… let’s not always assume what is truly immoral and what is presumed by the West to be immoral are fully overlapping categories.

  4. Great article, Colin. I think there are some issues here for the publisher and editorial board also. Plagiarism is defined as ‘an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorisation and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author’. Surely this ought to have been identified at the point of editorial proof reading, either by using plagiarism software such as that used in universities, or by the means that ultimately identified the problem.
    Also – if the problem is that ideas and quotes had not been properly attributed, why trash the commentaries? The material and thoughts are not wrong – they are not properly attributed. Why not give the manuscript back to the author and ask him to reference his primary sources. Unless the material is SO heavily plagiarised that there is no original material there at all. In which case there might be a lawsuit to follow.

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