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.

Preaching Joshua Today

John Stevens has given an extremely useful unpacking of Joshua, and some thoughts about how to preach it here.

I particularly enjoyed his conclusion:

“The book of Joshua therefore teaches us that we need a greater “Joshua” who will be fully faithful to God, who will lead his people into their promised inheritance, but whose rule will not be brought to an end by death.  We can rejoice that in Jesus this “greater Joshua” has come, and that he will accomplish our salvation and bring us safely into our inheritance in his eternal kingdom.”

Announcing ‘Announcing’!

The church I pastor, Greenview Church, is pleased to be part of the West of Scotland Gospel Partnership. In a few weeks time we are planning to have a conference with the theme: “Announcing – Introducing Christ to an Introspective Culture.”


The main speakers will be Rico Tice (All Souls, Christianity Explored) and Richard Borgonon (St Helen’s, The Word 121). We will also have seminars on the topics:

  • Seminar 1 – From Christianity Explored to Life Explored – Rico Tice
  • Seminar 2 – Workplace Evangelism – Richard Borgonon
  • Seminar 3 – Addiction and Evangelism – Terry McCutcheon
  • Seminar 4 – Evangelism in Marginalised Communities – Norrie McKay
  • Seminar 5 – Evangelising Immigrant Communities

It is open to Christians from all churches who have an interest in seeing the gospel spread across Glasgow, the West of Scotland and indeed the entire land of the Saltire.

The venue is the Tron Church in Glasgow, and tickets can be found here. It would be great to see you!

Finally, here is a personal invitation from Rico where he explains how excited he is to be sharing a preview of the Life Explored Course with us….



The blood, the guts and the glorious Gospel

I’ll be thinking about Leviticus this week, morning, noon and night.


I’m joining about 150 enthusiastic leaders and young people who will be investing a week of their lives, trawling through the glory (and gory!)that is Leviticus. (The camp/event is called Contagious)

Having spent many hours in prep, I feel like I have already been blessed. Though often feared and neglected, Leviticus is a marvellous book. By the end of this week, I am fully expecting to gain a much bigger view of sin, the atonement and my great High Priest.

To give you a flavour (or a reminder) of the riches of Leviticus, check out this brilliant video.

To hear some great sermons on Leviticus, I would recommend the sermons of Pete Woodcock, which you will find here. (Crosspreach, by the way, is a great place to find sound preaching).


Keep It Simple…

Over at Desiring God, a great reminder for us that preaching has a rather simple formula. See great things; then say what you see!

“…preaching is not fundamentally complicated. Yes, there are numerous factors to consider when thinking through what to say and how to say it, but I would like to suggest that all faithful, biblical preaching shares a single characteristic. It flows from the heart of a man who has seen great things in the Bible, has savored what he has seen, and stands before God’s people to say what he saw. Faithful preaching can be much more than this, but it shouldn’t be less.”

(Jonathon Woodyard, “A Simple Formula For Effective Preaching”)

Preach To The News

What is the preacher’s task? Does he communicate the contemporary news to his people, broadcasting current affairs from the pulpit? No. The herald of God – should he have the foggiest notion of his task – will endeavour to proclaim a news that is vintage. Indeed this ‘good news’ is millennia’s old!


That the Word of God is relevant, but not recent, is a fact that should sit perfectly well with us. The preacher’s appointed task isn’t to relay the temporal, ephemeral, and often trivial. The words we speak are living and enduring. They will resound long after the current newscycle. They will echo in eternity itself.

And yet… Could it be that the news should actually be featuring more, not less, in many of our sermons? Having listened to a lot of preaching (including my own!) I would argue in the affirmative. True: the daily news should not drive the agenda in our expositions. But with reasonable regularity our sermons should be applied to the daily rag.

Let me pose the question like this: What does my sermon have to say to this week’s news?

Does this passage, for instance, speak to citizens who are suddenly living under a new prime minister, or who are facing the future within a new and uncertain political landscape?

Alternatively, how might this passage address the racial tensions which are being felt across the United States right now?

Then again: does our text have anything to say to people who are filled with fear and fury in lands like Turkey and France?

These sort of questions will take our application in new and helpful directions.

It is not possible, nor helpful, to aim our applicatory-sights on every news story. Nor is the pulpit the place to get ‘all political.’ We should keep our personal views out of the place where God’s views are meant to be heard. But the Bible has a message for the globe. The preacher who only ever addresses individual concerns will convey (however inadvertently) that the Bible itself is parochial.  The Bible is not so impotent that it cannot speak to political uncertainty or a terrorist attack.

The summary? Don’t be so foolish as to preach the news. Preach God’s Word to the news.

A Few Simple Ways That Most Of Us Could Instantly Improve Our Preaching

My preaching could be better, and so could yours. Here are just a few ways that we might improve our sermons.VRU2C8T6L1 (1)

Apply more  – The upsurge in recent decades of expository preaching has seen a welcome focus upon explaining the Bible. At the very same time, biblical application has been arguably in decline. Of course, application must be done biblically, carefully, and sensitively –  but application must be done. I would suggest that we shouldn’t wait until the sermon’s conclusion before we start showing the relevance of the text. Start early. Show people right from the off that the passage lands in the street where they live. And keep showing them throughout the sermon.

Don’t just make the obvious points – Many sermons suffer from stating the obvious. We preachers tell people what they could easily pick up themselves with only a superficial reading. Now its true, we do need to explain things simply. And yes, we must remind people of the truths they know. What I am suggesting, though, is that having spent hours studying the passage, we help people see some things which are less obvious. Don’t just explain the easy parts. Explain the hard parts. Could it be that some sermons aren’t very interesting because they don’t go deep enough?

Work harder at the logical flow – The best sermons are clear sermons. And one of the things that makes a sermon clear is the fact that its easy to follow. Putting a negative spin on it, some preachers are like butterflies. They hop from flower to flower but there is no obvious connection between each leap!  Preachers who speak with clarity are less like a butterfly, and more like a locomotive train: they progress sequentially from one station to the next, with a clear sense of direction and a steady sense of development. To help us strengthen this area, we should revisit our manuscript prior to preaching. We should review our manuscript and ask questions like: do the topics arise in order? Does every sentence, paragraph, and main point naturally flow from the one before?  In addition, periodic ‘summarising’ will also help our listeners follow the movement of the sermon.

Use everyday language – JC Ryle’s little book Simplicity In Preaching argues for plainness in a preacher’s language. Ryle talks about using simple Saxon words rather than words which come from either a French or Latin base. He also generally counsels us against using long words. Reading the newspapers, and simply talking to people, can help us in using everyday language, and not just the language of the commentators.

Tighten up your illustrations – Illustrations are great slaves but poor masters. Used rightly they can illuminate; used wrongly they can confuse. One preacher I used to listen to had a habit of using illustrations which were encumbered with details. Some of these details were tangential to the point he was making. The result: confusion! At other times his illustrations didn’t seem to even make the point he was drawing out of them. I noticed this about this brother, but I dread to think how often I have done the same myself!?  A further danger, peculiar to illustrations, is that they can shine a positive spotlight on the preacher. The “when I was doing my quiet time the other day…” illustration is probably not the most endearing thing to say to a congregation! Equally bad is “During our family devotions….”!  The church will naturally assume the preacher is engaged in these things, but when said (even in passing) such illustrations can appear self-serving.


*I recommend the writings of Bryan Chapell on the subject of transitions.