Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. – 2 Timothy 2:15
The goal of Bible study is to be right, not original.
Folks have been studying Scripture for 1000s of years. At this point in history I suspect any truly original interpretation is probably wrong. It’s hubris to think that in all that study no one ever got it right (until I came along). And it’s folly to ignore good work done by those who came before us.
Ideally, we have an unbroken chain of understanding from Jesus to the Apostles through the Scriptures to various teachers who pass on that same truth. Original thinking could very well break the chain.
When I learn truth from someone and pass it on, how much should I change to avoid plagiarism and how much should I keep to avoid corrupting the truth? Isn’t it better to effectively communicate truth than to develop an original, less-effective way to communicate truth? How much “borrowing” is too much?
How do we know when we are “accurately handling the word of truth” and when we have crossed a copyright line?
While I don’t claim to have all the answers or a perfect citation record, as a teacher who is constantly learning from others, I’ve had to develop some general guidelines:
- Give credit to anyone quoted verbatim and/or at length. If you are publishing, copyrighting or making money off the work, be even more diligent about proper citations.
- Communicate freely ideas in your own words. The specific expression of an idea is protected by copyright, but the idea itself is not.
In free & open teaching settings (leading a small group, teaching a large group or otherwise freely sharing ideas), citations can be disruptive and lengthy verbatim quotes difficult to follow. Rather than reading and citing a long reference work verbatium, summarize (“as one scholar explained…’) and communicate the idea in your own words.
For example, Ray Stedman was my first pastor. As a baby-believer, I attended his church and read all his books. So much of his thought has became my thought that sometimes I don’t know when I’m quoting him or just teaching what I believe to be true.
But sometimes I’m explaining a passage that I heard Ray teach at some point. Am I quoting him? Probably. Do I realize it? No. I am echoing his thought, because I absorbed it like a sponge in the years I attended his church.
And, Ray Stedman is not my only mentor. I am deeply grateful for the many who have taught me well. I have been blessed to know some of my mentors personally while others I know only through MP3s and thick reference books.
I love learning. I enjoy copious research. When I find a strong, biblical teacher, I attach like a parasite, drinking deeply of the nourishment he or she offers. While I haven’t seen my college pastors or my teachers at the McKenzie Study Center in 30 years, they still teach me through their sermons, blogs, books and articles. I’ve never met RC Sproul, but I feel like I know him well — at least I know his scholarship.
I gave up being an “original thinker” years ago. The more I learn, the less I study a text completely on my own. While I always begin by wrestling with the text through my own study and prayer, once I have the general flow and the puzzles to be solved, I turn to my trusted teachers, reference books and scholars.
I’ve finely tuned my ear to recognize good methodology and bible study skills carefully applied. I’ve learned who is most likely to have the cultural background, who knows the nuances of the biblical languages, who has done the most work on poetry and prophecy, etc.
I seek the expert most likely to answer the question at hand. Then I learn, synthesize and incorporate. If I cited the source of every idea in my talks, every sentence would be from somewhere and there might be 50-100 different sources. I’m not looking for what to say, so much as how to properly understand the passage and “accurately handle the word of truth.”
One of the very first times I taught publicly, I tried to cite every book I used and every name who taught me. Afterward, my teacher told me he never wanted me to cite him again — not because he was angry with me, he was encouraging. He told me something I’ve never forgotten:
“Truth is truth. Learn it, make it your own and teach it to others.”
Consciously or not, he was echoing Paul’s advice to Timothy:
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. – 2 Timothy 2:2
Yes, there’s a sense in which I am a product of plagiarism. But I pray that I am also a link in the faithful chain of those entrusted with the truth and passing it on.
Recently a women I co-labor with taught a passage I had helped her understand. To my delight and joy, she used phrases and minor quotes from my notes — enhancing and improving on them from her own study.
Some might call that plagiarism, but it made my heart sing. Just so, the chain goes on.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.- Psalm 19:14
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