Mere Fidelity: What is Christ-Centered Hermeneutics?

Mere FidelitySo, we’ve all see that phrase “Christ-centered” pop up on the blogosphere before. “Christ-centered preaching”, “Christ-centered theology”, “Christ-centered dog washing”–but what does that even mean? Especially when it comes to interpretation, what does it mean to have a truly Christ-centered hermeneutics? Does that just mean doing typology all day long? And is there a right way or a wrong way to do typology? Do we stick to only the types authorized explicitly by the apostles, or can we expand? And if we expand, how do we stop before we fall into typological excess? And what about Tim Keller?

Alastair, Andrew, and I go into all this in this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity. It was a fun one. I hope you enjoy and pass it along.

By the way, if you’d like to review and rate us over at iTunes (if and only if you like us), please feel free to do that here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Willimon: 12 Disciplines for How to Listen to a Sermon for Sanctification

listeningWe have a loquacious God. At least that’s what Will Willimon thinks (“Preaching”, Sanctified by Grace, 221-233). And it seems he’s on to something. The Scriptures give us the story of a speaking God. One who brings the world into being with the word of his mouth. One who restarts the human project by speaking a word to nomad named Abram. One who gives us a people his covenant in 10 Words. One who inspires prophets and poets to proclaim his coming wrath and salvation. One who comes to us as the Word made flesh. One who saves us by pronouncing words of justification and forgiveness. It should come as no surprise then, that one of the key practices of our ongoing sanctification should involve the ministry of the Word. Hence the need for preaching.

Indeed, faith is essentially a posture of listening, of trusting the Word of the Lord above all other words. As Willimon puts it:

“one might characterize the whole of the Christian’s life as lifelong training in listening to God more than we listen to ourselves, taking God a bit more seriously and ourselves less so.” (pg. 227)

But that’s difficult, isn’t it? We naturally tend to rebel against what appears to be the passive act of listening, of sitting and hearing the word of the Lord through the mouth of God’s appointed preachers and teachers in the church.  It’s not something that comes naturally, especially in our distracted, consumeristic, advert-driven, social media culture in which we’re trained by Twitter, Facebook, and the comment section on every article we read, that our voice is the one that matters.

So how do we learn to grow as listeners of the Word? And by “we” I do mean all of us, really. Preachers are not excluded. Indeed, Willimon says that “preaching begins with listening” (226), so preachers ought to be the most interested in learning to cultivate the habits and skills of listener such as “humility, attentiveness, self-knowledge…focus, patience” and so forth.

Well, Willimon gives us a list of disciplines or attitudes contemporary Christians ought to cultivate in their weekly, sermon-listening (228-232):

  1. A conviction that these ancient Jews and first Christians know more than we about the true and living God. We’re moderns who typically have trouble submitting to cultures and ways of looking at the world that are different than hours. Sermon listening requires us to humble ourselves and listen to the words of Scripture, which presumably form the basis of all good preaching.
  2. A weekly willingness to be surprised by a sermon’s revelation that God is other than we might have believed God to be, that God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55.9), and that part of the adventure of Christian believing is being corrected by a sermon. We don’t come to sermons asking whether we agree or whether it fits with what we’ve always thought. Sanctification is a process that requires and expects correction of our old ways of thinking and doing, especially about God. Sermons are a part of correcting those old ways with the joyful truth of who God really is.
  3. An expectation that, in listening to a sermon one’s life may be caught up into purposes grander and more dangerous than one’s personal projects, namely a life commandeered by God. Sermon’s not just explanation but application. Listening to a sermon opens you up to Jesus’ command to “follow me!”, not just “agree with me.”
  4. The expectation that a sermon could disrupt one’s received world by verbally rendering the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus told sermons precisely in order to disrupt and reorder our ways of understanding the coming Kingdom of God. He brought the kingdom to bear in the lives of hearers that provoked new understanding and new living, not a rubberstamp on what we’ve always known.
  5. A willingness not to receive an immediate, practical, pay off from the sermon. Sermons are first about God and what he’s done and then after that about us. We need to get over our pragmatic expectations about tips for living, personal happiness, and so forth, and understand that worship is priority number one. Willimon writes, “An always useful God, an instantly applicable sermon is often a sing of idolatry, making ourselves and our endeavors more significant than the Trinity.
  6. A patient willingness not to have every single sermon speak to you. Don’t be a narcissist in your listening habits. Maybe you have to sit there one week and listen to a sermon that speaks more to your neighbor in the pew than you. Your turn will come soon. And who knows when that sermon will apply to you?
  7. A vulnerability to the mysterious comings and goings of the Holy Spirit. Listening isn’t a natural work. We need the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to receive the Word. Pray for illumination and before the reading the Word and its preaching is essential for receiving God’s Word.
  8. An understanding that preaching is a communal activity. The Word bears fruit within the congregation over time. And the congregation is the natural habitat of the received word. We listen together, apply it together, understand it together, and worship in light of it together. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons a podcast in your living room can’t totally replace your church.
  9. A desire for a preacher, a pastor, who cares more for the right division of the Word of God (2 Tim. 2.15) than for the love or ire of the congregation. Pastors need to be more impressed with God’s opinion than that of the congregation. They need to love their people, but loving them in such a way that they’re able to tell them the truth of God even when it requires deep courage.
  10. A joyful submission to the language of Zion, learning how to use the peculiar speech of the church, rather than demanding that the preacher attempt to translate our faith into language that is more acceptable to the culture. This one is fascinating since so many modern preaching theory puts a premium on “translation.” Willimon thinks there’s an element of strangeness that’s helpful in sanctification. The language of Scripture has a priority and a formative effect that is lost when we reduce words like “sin” to “brokenness”, or “error”, or “mistake.” While we should explain, we can’t replace Scriptural language.
  11. Joy in a preacher who attempts, on Sunday, to help us pay attention to matters we try to avoid all week long. Preachers are there to get you to think about things like meaning, righteousness, faith, grace, and death—stuff we’re usually too busy or distracted with “real life” to focus on. “By God’s grace, we can stand more truth, and put up with more reality than we think.” We need to be ready to hear about the Reality behind our everyday reality more often than we’d like.
  12. A relinquishment of our prerogative to talk about what we are obsessed with discussing (sex, family, security, health) and a docile willingness to engage in a conversation with a living God, talking about what God wants to talk about. This one is fascinating. When we listen to Scripture or preach Scripture, we need to be ready to let Scripture itself—God himself—set the agenda of what we talk about. God always gets around to the things that matter to us, but usually we need the urgency in our heart reordered and our eyes opened to the issues that are pressing to God first.

These are the sorts of attitudes and disciplines that, if cultivated regularly, will lead to a sanctifying impact on our practice of listening to sermons week in and week out.

And if you want more thoughts on the sermon, the Mere Fidelity chaps discussed the future of the sermon without me a couple of weeks ago. You can listen to that here:

Soli Deo Gloria

It Takes a Hard Forehead and a Heavy Heart to Preach (For the Church)

takeshardforeheadThinking about preaching while reading the prophets is a sobering thing. Whether it’s Isaiah’s commission to preach to a deaf and blind people, or Jeremiah’s call to go preach without fear to those who threaten his life and reject his message, the prophets don’t exactly make good promo material for aspiring seminarians.  (“Preaching God’s Word–Learn how to do it without getting killed.”) Nevertheless they are essential reading for anyone trying to engage in ministry within the church, especially the ministry of the Word. I was reminded of this again this week as I came to Ezekiel in my devotional.

Ezekiel’s Assignment and Ours

In Ezekiel 2-3, Ezekiel receives his commission to preach to the wicked, rebellious house of Israel in a vision. The basic call was to persevere in preaching the word of the Lord no matter what because through him God will make them know that “a prophet has been among them.” (2:5) This seems tough, but encouraging right? I mean, he is told that it will be evident that Ezekiel is God’s anointed prophet. God will be with him powerfully. That’s gotta be good?

Eh, not so much. There’s more.

See, while promising to be with him, God also makes it clear he’s not going to be greeted with a lot of success. He is going to be rejected. His message will fall on rebellious ears and stubborn hearts. He says that he’s sending him to a people who are so stubborn that, even though the message is not hard to understand, and the language is not a barrier, even so, they will reject it because they continually reject God. (3:6) Yet still, God calls him to be a “watchman” over the house of Israel (3:17), preaching a warning to God’s people so that they might turn, repent, and not come under judgment. Knowing that the people will rebel, knowing that they will reject him, knowing the difficulty he is still to preach the word of the Lord.

How are we to preach under conditions like this? What drives faithfulness in situations like this? How do we bear up under the pressure? Most of us don’t think about this going in. I mean, we might “know” it’s going to be hard. We might “know” that if we faithfully preach the word, not all that we say is going to be received well. Nevertheless, coming face to face with recalcitrant members of the body, people who won’t repent, members you’re intimidated to speak honestly to for fear of causing them to leave, can catch some of us off guard and make us lose our nerve. Even with the Spirit of God indwelling the hearts of believers, nobody likes being told to repent. The house of Israel can still be a rebellious people this side of the Cross.

You can read the rest of the post over at For the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

He Who Has Ears Let Him Hear (A Parable for Preachers)

Jesus talkingEvery preacher who’s been at it long enough knows that there are some sermons, or even series as a whole, that end up showing more fruit in your own life than that of your hearers. It’s as if God set you up to preach this to bless your people, mostly indirectly, through its effects in your own life than the particular lessons they learn from you in that time. I don’t know if that was exactly what was going on, but the first summer I preached through the parables, it certainly felt that way.

I had been at my job for about a year at that point, had maybe sixty or so sermons under my belt, a cycle of seasons, and the first taste of ministry growth I’d ever seen. We’d had bit of a spurt throughout the spring and with summer beginning we had old students coming home, new students showing up, and everything was shaping up to be a smoother summer. Two hitches, though.

First, we did this odd thing where we would run our mid-week program in the park all summer so we could BBQ, play frisbee, and take advantage of the weather. The downside is that I had to preach open-air with a ton of random distractions (dogs, babies, random flocks of–no joke–squawking parrots).

Second, I was still struggling with the fact I just couldn’t seem to get through to some students. I mean, some understood, they were growing, plugging in, maturing, but others just couldn’t get a handle on what I was preaching. It didn’t matter whether I’d grab coffee with them, prayed a ton for them by name all week, tailor my talks to hit at specific issues they were struggling with, or whatever, if I looked at their corner during my sermon, it would just turn up blank stares, distracted giggles, and an apparently total lack of fruit throughout the rest of the week. I mean, it’s not even just that they weren’t listening. It’s that in the conversations I had with them later, it was clear that many of them simply didn’t understand what I was saying week in and week out. I was pitching gospel and they were still catching law–or something else entirely.

That’s when God sent me the parable of the sower or the four soils (Mark 4:1-20).

Fairly rigorous young man that I was, I picked the beginning of my series carefully. I figured I’d open up with the parable about how to understand the parables, as Jesus speaks to the crowds about his own mission to re-sow the people of Israel through the preaching of the Word, the seed. Of course,  interpreting the parable can be difficult and possibly discouraging. We need to understand that the varying responses of the four soils are not intended as an example of Christ-centered statistics (Barna Headline: Only 1 in 4 Hearers will Positively Respond to the Gospel!). In fact, it’s something of an invitation on the part of Jesus to “be careful how you hear”–take these things with an open and honest heart so that you might bear fruit (Luke 8:15).

All the same, as a young preacher struggling with my understanding of the power of the Word, my own ability to preach it, immaturity, self-condemnation, and, likely, sinful impatience, I needed to reflect on Jesus’ words, “He who has ears let him hear.” Really?

I mean, this was Jesus. The Messiah. The Son of God. Easily the greatest preacher to ever walk the plane. Author and deliverer of the most famous sermon of all time (Matt. 5-7). Not merely a bringer of the word of God, but the Word of God made flesh, proclaimed to the world in concreto. There’s no possibility about the “lack of unction” for the one who brought forth in the womb by the power of the Spirit, or the lack of “prayer life of the preacher” in the one who possessed an eternal communion with the Father.  And here he is talking about people missing it. People whose hearts are so hard the seed never penetrates. People who show quick signs of life, but then quickly fade away. People who seem to have real faith, but who allow themselves to get choked by the cares of the world.

And this was their response to Jesus?

And that was when I had to take a breath, step back, and put my own ministry in context. Whether because of youthful arrogance, or that early (or later) tendency to try to justify your own existence through your preaching and pastoring, I realized I was treating the things of God as something fundamentally within my power. I was operating under the unspoken assumption that it was my words which would open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, and give hearts of flesh to those with rocks in their chest. And if it wasn’t happening, it was just clearly something wrong with me and my ministry.

But that’s simply false. If Jesus himself said there was going to be a mixed response to his preaching, why was I under the impression that I was going to have a better batting average than the Son of God? It was ludicrous.

Please don’t hear this as a deterministic shut-down of preachers who endeavor to preach with skill, prayer, and energy. No doubt there was serious room for improvement in my preparation, prayer, and ministry practice at the time (as there still is). Pastors, you can get better, preach clearer, pray deeper, and hope for greater grace in your ministry. Certainly it’s foolish to avoid those things. Still, for all that, there is a place for remembering that, though we do speak as one who preaches “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), it is God who gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).

For myself, that summer I learned a couple of lessons I had to continually dwell on from there-on out. First, there is a comfort in those words for preachers to understand that not every hard heart in the pews remains so because of your failure as a pastor. Not every blank stare is reflection of your powers as an orator. Not every patch of dirt stays dry because you’re no good as a sower. If you believe that, you’re just setting yourself up for discouragement and self-doubt, both qualities which, ironically enough, will rob you of power in the pulpit.

Second, flowing from this, it gave me confidence to just preach regardless of the “perceived” effects. Of course you have to be aware of your people. Good preachers are students of the Word and students of their people. Still, looking at Jesus’ parable, you can’t gauge these things week by week anyways. There are plenty of false positives as well as slow growing seeds for your to be measuring your efficacy that way. the more I learn(ed) to stop judging my sermons by the reactions I thought could or couldn’t see, the more I focused on simply trusting God to do his work with the best I had to offer up every week. As I did that, my confidence in God’s backing grew as did my own clarity.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll leave wind things down here. I pray other young preachers might take encouragement from these reflections as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Few Words About Driscoll, William Wallace II, and Young Pastors

The Standard Driscoll pic.

The Standard Driscoll pic.

I generally don’t comment on Mark Driscoll controversies. I refrain partially because it feels like click-bait most of the time. Also, because there’s plenty of commentary on him already. Finally, because part of me still feels some sad affection for him. As a young man (like 19) I used to listen to him and I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I learned a lot and grew to love Jesus more. He was funny, he preached the Bible, and was free to download. (Ironically enough, this was the same period that I was also podcasting Rob Bell and learning from him too. Needless to say, like most 19-year-olds, I was a theologically confused young man.) In any case, though I stopped paying attention to him a long time ago, and have been increasingly saddened and frustrated at his antics, I really, really haven’t wanted to weigh in.

This week, though, even more dirt on Mark Driscoll came out beyond the aggressive church practices, plagiarism, and such.  If you haven’t already heard, apparently about 14 years ago, Driscoll used to go around on the internet commenting under a different pen name ‘William Wallace II’ or something like that. Now, he admits as much in his early book and says that under that name he was a little, well, aggressive. So, after some consideration he shut it down and moved on. Well, recently someone took the time to dig up about 140 pages of comments made by him about theology, men, women, and so forth. I won’t repeat it because you can find it on a number of sites, but I gotta be honest, even though it was 14 years ago, it’s really, really ugly stuff.

Well, what follows are a few quick reflections on the whole thing. They’re incomplete, but here they are.


First, this whole thing just makes me sad. It makes my heart sad as a younger pastor, as a Christian, and as a brother in Christ. It makes me sad both for him, and for the congregation that was dealing with that at the time. It makes me sad for sake of Christ’s church whose name is being dragged through the mud again. Both the tone and the content of what was said are things that are unfit for an elder in Christ’s Church. I’m not sure you can read that stuff with a love for Christ’s Bride without any sense of grief. Please be praying for his church, his community, his family, and for Driscoll himself. This has to be a rough last year and I hope the Lord is doing a work there.

Holy Fear 

One of the things my parents consistently warned me against as a child and young man was self-righteous pride. Whenever we saw someone involved in obvious sin, or a scandal on TV, my mom was always warned me never to utter the words “I could never do that”, but instead “Lord, protect me from that.” The reality is, because of indwelling sin, I could do that. Maybe not easily, but I’m not so far removed from that so that I could become haughty about these things. In the same vein, my dad always reminded us, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” If you find yourself cultivating anger, scorn, malice, or pride as you think about Driscoll right now, take care and turn over these things to the Lord. Without saying there shouldn’t be accountability, Paul reminds us that discipline and correction ought to be done by those who are “spiritual” and who “watch themselves lest they also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1-2).

Young Pastors and Their Words

For other youngish types in the ministry, be careful. Yes, if the math is correct, at 30 Driscoll was two years older than I am now, which means he wasn’t a kid. Still, take this as a cautionary tale. I know I am probably far too careless in ordinary speech, but now, in the age of recordings and the internet, we’re beginning to see little hints of what it’ll be like on the day of judgment when Jesus says “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36). Nothing we write or say dies or fades away.

Young pastors, I’d suggest a few tips in this area:

  • Read and re-read Proverbs and pay special attention to what it says about wise speech. Soak in that.
  • Do the same with 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
  • Go find an older, wise mentor whose judgment you can defer to as a spiritual discipline of humility and guidance. Look at their speech. Model yourself after them as much as you can.
  • Do something similar with your preaching and writing models. Young types don’t need help to be aggressive, and brash. We do need models of passionate wisdom. In other words, try to find more old dudes to listen to. This is part of why I started listening to Keller instead of Driscoll and Bell. Well, that and a bunch of other stuff.
  • When it comes to your writing practices:
    • Write everything like your Elders (who presumably have some authority) could read this. Also, if you aren’t in a church where you have godly Elders who can speak to this, fix that ASAP.
    • Don’t give yourself the privilege/temptation of an anonymous online alias. It’s just too tempting. Anonymity is the death of restrained, godly speech.

Older Pastors

I’ve written about mentorship before, but please find the young ones starting out. They need your prayers, your wisdom, and your help. Desperately. To some degree the younger pastors in the Church are only as good as they were mentored. If you care about the future of, not only your church, but the Church, you’ll find someone to mentor.


This one sounds weird, but, it makes me trust God. Somewhere in the middle of all of that anger, foul language, and so forth, God managed to save a lot of people and change a lot of lives at Mars Hill. I know there are a lot of survivor stories that tell a different side to it, and the more I know, the weirder and sadder it gets. That’s a side of the story that’s real as well. Still, in the middle of it, God is gracious. God takes care of his people through it all.

Well, these are the reflections of a young man, so take them for what they’re worth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Update: Given my youth, it’s unsurprising that I have to clarify myself. So, for those of you reading this, please, please don’t take this as my total thoughts with respect to the situation, or a sign that I don’t care about the people who struggled there and so forth. I was thinking about this kind of introspectively and with regard to my own role, so, that’s kind of what shaped this.

Preaching ‘God’ and Justifying the Self

You ought to have friends you disagree with regularly. For example, my buddy Morgan and I seem to agree about very little when it comes to the hot-button, theological issues of the day. He’s a progressive Methodist, I’m Reformed. Our rhetorical styles clash, and our forms of argumentation and analysis differ widely. And yet, for all that, I still find myself learning from our little sparring matches. In fact, often it’s precisely for that reason that I find his engagement so helpful. He helps keep me honest.

John the Baptist--very intense preacher.

John the Baptist–very intense preacher.

I bring this up because one of his big themes he’s always preaching is the way that Jesus frees us from our various attempts at religious, self-justification. Within that theme, a regular trope he’s identified is the way some theological types will use their doctrine of God as a way of self-righteously posturing as particularly holy and faithful compared to everyone else.

The way this supposedly works with conservative Reformed types is that we look at the world, see the way there’s a general rejection of the idea that God is a judge, or that he has wrath, or that he would command laws that go contrary to our cultural instincts, and then push back on over-aggressively to prove our own faithfulness. In other words:

You wanna know how faithful I am? Look at the God I preach. This God is big, HUGE!, sovereign, and full of judgment! His commands are his commands because they’re his commands, and there’s no way I’m gonna stop to explain them if you have a problem with that, because that would be cultural capitulation. And clearly, I’m not a capitulator. I’m one of the faithful as evidenced by the very hard to accept portrait of God I’ve just presented you.

So if you squint closely, under all of our proclamations of a God who doesn’t just coddle us therapeutically, there’s a self-justifying, chest-thumping motive at work.

Now, of course, a lot of us read something like that and we’re tempted to balk and respond sharply. I know I am. I mean, I’ve written a number of times on the issues of wrath, God’s judgment, and so forth, and I don’t think that at core I was really trying to impress anybody, or even justify my own heart, but speak to an issue of real concern. What’s more, I there is a real, healthy, biblical instinct to push back where you see some truth being sidelined, or abandoned, in order that the gospel might be properly proclaimed. All of that said, I don’t think we (Reformed, especially) should be too quick to write off the possibility of this kind of rhetorical self-justification.

I mean, let me put it this way: haven’t you seen it at work in the progressives? Haven’t you seen that writer, or friend, or theologian going on about the ‘radical’ nature of the God they proclaim? You know the type of rhetoric I’m talking about. They might be writing about grace, or maybe some sort of revisionism on a current social issue and you’ll get this string along the lines of:

You know what scares the ‘religious’, right? A God of grace. They can’t handle a God who bursts the confines of their petty little religious rules! But God is LOVE! And his love wins out over narrow-minded, gatekeepers of religious orthodoxy. And if preaching about this God and his grace gets me in trouble with the ‘religious’, or the ‘Pharisees’, then so be it!

Conservatives like myself can look at that and see more than a little chest-thumping going on in progressives priding themselves on how gracious, inclusive, and un-legalistic their God is. It’s courageous to proclaim the message of grace, you know, the way Jesus did despite the objections of the religious establishment. Wouldn’t you have fun placing yourself in the role of Jesus against the modern-day Pharisees?

Okay, so what I’m saying is, if you can see how that can work in the self-justifying God-rhetoric of the left, isn’t there just a chance those of us on the more conservative end of things can fall prey to this too? I mean, surely, if you’ve got a Reformed understanding of the power of indwelling sin, you can’t put this past yourself, right?

So what are the dangers here? Well, I can think of at least two. In the first place, if we’re being tempted to preach a view of God out of self-justifying pride, or anxiety, our hearts are in danger. Pride in all of its forms is a cancer to be rooted out ferociously, but none is so pernicious or lethal as spiritual pride that can defend itself behind the wall of righteous doctrine. Please don’t mishear me. I’m not an anti-doctrine guy. I blog about Calvin, study Bavinck’s Dogmatics every Saturday, and get depressed if I haven’t gotten to read theology for more than a day. And yet it’s precisely because I am who I am that I know this pride is so dangerous and worth examining yourself diligently to root it out. As Jonathan Edwards’ has written,

‘Tis by this [pride] that the mind defends itself in other errors, and guards itself against light by which it might be corrected and reclaimed. The spiritually proud man is full of light already; he does not need instruction, and is ready to despise the offer of it. . . . Being proud of their light, that makes ’em not jealous of themselves; he that thinks a clear light shines around him is not suspicious of an enemy lurking near him, unseen: and then being proud of their humility, that makes ’em least of all jealous of themselves in that particular, viz. as being under the prevalence of pride. –Some Thoughts Concerning Revival

Second, if this sort of theological self-justification is at work, it can have serious effect on our proclamation of the gospel. If your self-identity is caught up in the fact that you proclaim a strong God, who commands what he commands, and so forth, in order to push back against the culture, you may end up over-correcting and proclaiming a distorted picture of God! The righteous God who judges sin becomes a fastidious, contemptuous God who barely stomachs sinners, and so the real, biblical testimony about his tender love can get sidelined. In our rush to proclaim God’s laws that often correct our cultural logic and don’t instinctively appeal to our fallen reason, we may skip over the reasons he actually does give in Scripture, or miss ways that biblical truth can appeal to certain common grace, cultural instincts. This would be disastrous for our witness in the world.

Just a week or two ago, I wrote about the importance of properly proclaiming “Here is Your God!”, before move to “Thus says the Lord.” In other words, for people to have a proper grasp of the commands and be willing to obey them in holy worship, they must know about the good character of the God who commands them. When self-justification is distorting our preaching, we can’t properly do that. For those of us pastors, theologians, and church-folk who care about keeping a watch on our “life and doctrine” (1 Tim 4:16), then, let us constantly remind ourselves that our proclamation of the God of the gospel flows from our acceptance of the gospel for ourselves. We no longer have anything to prove. We’re justified in Christ and so are in need of no self-justification–not even through our own preaching.

Soli Deo Gloria

I Probably Got It From Tim Keller (Or, A Ramble on Plagiarism)

I'm going to re-preach whatever he's saying right now.

I’m going to re-preach whatever he’s saying right now.

My old pastor Mike Erre used to say, “I’ve never had an original idea in my life. I thought I had one once, but then, unsurprisingly I found it in C.S. Lewis.” He was always declaiming the originality of anything he was saying all the while preaching some of the most helpful, creative, biblical sermons I’d ever heard. At first I thought he was just being modest, but as I grew older, read a bit more, and finally had the responsibility of teaching myself, I began to see what he was saying. When it comes to preaching and teaching the Bible, theology, philosophy, or what-have-you, almost everything has been said once before by somebody. I mean, just the other day I was re-reading an old grad-school paper and realized I’d been arguing for something like Calvin’s double-gift theology without ever having read a lick of Calvin.

I bring this up simply because I’ve been thinking a bit about the issue of plagiarism lately. Most of us in the internet blogosphere have. In light of the big plagiarism scandal with several of Mark Driscoll’s works either not attributing clearly-demonstrated dependency on the work of others, or just straight lifting passages, the thing was ugly. What’s more, recent reports seem to indicate that the plagiarization of sermons is on the rise. Pastors are just finding sermons online and  rereading them, or simply parroting their favorite podcasts, effectively doing the same thing.

Now, this raises a number of questions and thoughts for me, so in the, hopefully coherent, ramble that follows, I’d simply like to ask some questions and raise some points for consideration when it comes to the issue of “plagiarism” in blogging, writing, and preaching.

First of all, on the alleged rise in plagiarism, in general, I’m not so sure. I mean, the internet has made it easier to access tons of material and do that sort of thing, but when people talk about the recent rise in it, I’m wondering if certain things aren’t being forgotten. For one thing, we’re more aware of that issue and people are probably paying greater attention now to it. It’s also probably easier to track now than in was before as well. Still, there were plenty of audio tape ministries that probably fed a lot of smaller church pastors with sermons back in the 80s too. Also you gotta consider that because of the internet, Evangelical book/celebrity culture, and so forth, more people are hearing, listening, reading, digesting, and regurgitating the same voices. If that’s the case, it’s not unusual that you’re going to hear the same themes repeated in various sermons in various contexts.

Which raises the issue more formally: what counts as plagiarism in various contexts? Let’s be clear that direct quotes from other people that I lift, copy, and then claim credit for seems to be straight-forward plagiarism. Still, there seem to be some gray areas of confusion. Take citing your sources in preaching. Now, I’ll admit, I tend to like quoting people in sermons because I want my kids to get a desire to read books, it gives some weight, and it’s force of habit from grad school. Still, do I have to mention Tim Keller every time I talk about a “Christ-centered” reading of the texts even though l learned it from him and Edmund Clowney? Or what if I mention the anti-imperial thrust of a certain Pauline text without citing the N.T. Wright commentary I got it from? That doesn’t sound quite right.

Maybe that’s just a function of the preaching context. When you’re preaching, you may not want to go citing a bunch of names and sources because it seems too cluttered. A sermon is not a lecture is not a seminary paper. Your point, in any case, is to preach the text, not Wright’s insight into the text. Or again, in the heat of a sermon, you might make a point about a text and forget who said it so you just preach it. Or what if you have in the general course of study preparation, and so forth, you strike upon an idea, write it down, and completely forget that you originally heard that in a sermon by a popular preacher last year?

A single sermon point might be one thing, but what about a whole sermon structure? For instance, I’ve found myself, at times, hearing a preacher exposit a text in a certain manner that I find compelling and I think, “That right there is something I’m going to preach to my students.” In the few times I have found that I’m following someone else’ basic outline, I think at that point it’s appropriate to say something along the lines of “Joe So-and-So gave me the premise of the sermon I’m preaching this to you today”, or something even more clear. Now, to be honest, I don’t think this should happen very much because it could become a habit you don’t want to fall into. Generally speaking, even when you’re using others’ insights into the texts, you need to be prayerfully working on applying them to your own context anyways. Joe doesn’t know your people and wasn’t called to your church, you were.

More briefly, how do those considerations play out in writing? It seems that a number of those points above would call for some sort of explicit reference. But what about general, widespread concepts, or biblical truths? I’m thinking, for instance, of C.S. Lewis’ analogies in Mere Christianity and his explication of the difference between begetting and making in his section on the Trinity. Lewis got most of that from Athanasius and the other Fathers but he doesn’t do much crediting at all. Is it plagiarism to use the same analogy without referencing them, or just prudence in not wanting to get bogged down even in the writing format? At that point I’m not so sure. Maybe there’s a point when an explanation, or articulation of a text has become the common inheritance of the Christian tradition such that specifying its origin becomes pointless, especially when that’s necessarily where you first heard the point.

At this point it seems prudent to end my ramblings. I suppose it makes sense at this point to issue my own version of my pastor’s disclaimer: if you find me saying anything of intelligence, worth, truth, or edification that I don’t cite outright, just assume I got it from Tim Keller. Beyond that, for other pastors, the best concrete advice I have is do your best to be honest. If you’re worried about a certain instance, err on the side of caution and cite it.

If you have any insights to offer on the subject, please chime in below. This was as much a comment as an invitation to further discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria