November 26, 2020

The God of Second Chances

In the early 90s, when I was a fairly young seminary student, I was working on a paper for one of my New Testament Greek courses. I had gathered up all the commentaries and journal articles that I could find on the topic, and was starting to write my paper. While reading one journal article, I said to myself, “Here is a great quote, I should put it in my paper.” Much to my surprise, the quote was already in my paper! The author of the journal article had taken an older commentary by another author, had reproduced it almost word for word, and then had it published in a prestigious journal. In doing so, he gave no credit to the original author, with no references, quotations, or footnotes. This was plagiarism at its worst and it was committed by a published academic.

Not being sure of what to do, I talked to my professor. He said that one of my other professors knew a friend of the author of the journal article. Word was passed up the chain, and I heard back that the author of the journal article had a deadline for the journal, and couldn’t complete the work in time. He panicked and copied the work from the older journal, thinking/hoping that no one would ever notice.

Fast forward to the present day, almost 20 years later. I wondered whatever had become of author of the journal article. Much to my surprise I found out several interesting facts about him. He is now a high ranking academic within a Christian college, and had been very successful in his position. He continues to write at a prolific rate. Most interestingly, was that after being appointed to the academic post, he had written a book that covered much of the same ground as the journal article. Had he plagiarized the book as well? I ordered both the original commentary and the newer book from Amazon. They arrived recently.

To my disappointment he had used the commentary in his new book. I had hoped that he would have completely started anew, with his own material. To his credit, he did put the older material into his own words this time, and his did credit the original author in an footnote at the end of the chapter (though his footnote did not mention the name of the original work, or its page number).

You will have noticed that I have been deliberately vague with my details. It is not my attention to destroy anybody’s career. Many iMonk readers would know both the academics involved, so to give any more details would likely lead to the names becoming public.

Has the author of the journal article learned his lesson? His failure to again give proper credit, and his continued prolific output makes me wonder about the integrity of all that he has written.

But I also know that if a microscope was held up to my life, that I would fall short in a lot of different areas too. Yet, God hasn’t given up on me, and is able to use me in many different ways despite my shortcomings. I can tell from what the author in question has accomplished in other areas that God has used him in other ways as well.

My God is a God of second chances. I am thankful that although I sin, Jesus’ sacrifice has paid for my punishment. God has given me a second chance, and a third, and a fourth…

Can I do anything else but the same?

Comments

  1. “Had he plagiarized the book as well? I ordered both the original commentary and the newer book from Amazon.”

    So you were digging for dirt?

    I am just picking on you a bit 🙂

    Not to get this thread off topic, but if you ever have a blog entry on sermon plagiarism in evangelical churches, that should get lots of comments! When I am in a picking mood, someone tells me a “wonderful sermon series” their “wonderful pastor” delivered, and I point them to the website he downloaded it from.

    • right!
      What I have found reading commentaries is that most commentators are skilled plagiarists. But then I as a rule, try not to read commentaries.
      Pastors are the worst Plagiarists though. It’ is amazing how many times I hear the same cliche’s, and i wonder to myself, are these in the public domain now? And why does this guy need a manuscript to remember that cliche’ that was tired when I was in Sunday School?

      • Matthew Peak says

        Grief, by that standard, we should do away with preaching altogether, if for the sake of integrity.

        • Well Matthew,
          There are pastors that seem to miss that pitfall and preach just fine. But using canned sermons off the internet, and cliche’s tired enough to put a man to sleep, should not be considered preaching in the first place.
          I think if pastors spent more time actually studying God’s word, and being with their people, they might find they don’t need to do this.

        • Matthew Peak says

          Forgive my cynicism.

          I do believe that exposition of scripture starting with the holiness of God and the grace of God is enough to feed a congregation for a lifetime. It seems that either pastors take grace as a blank spiritual check or they seem to use grace as an excuse to be as vague as possible for the cause of not hurting anyone’s feelings. And very few seem as concerned about holiness, even though holiness is, in my opinion, the light that gives depth and meaning to grace and keeps grace from being “greasy.”

          In terms of my academic resources, I still consider the Lutheran Study Bible to be incredibly rich in its view of God.

    • Little guilty here. He had been warned. When I found out that he had a book covering the same material, I was interested in finding out if he had heeded that warning.

  2. It just reminds me how easy it is to look at the speck in my brother’s eye while I have a plank in my own.

  3. My God is a God of second chances. I am thankful that although I sin, Jesus’ sacrifice has paid for my punishment. God has given me a second chance, and a third, and a fourth… Can I do anything else but the same?

    Are plagiarism and other violations of academic and professional integrity sins for you to be forgiving this author? Personally forgiving this author for any wrongdoings is not the same as choosing to remain silent over recognized problems. To refrain from naming names here is good, but to refrain from telling the publishers involved (or some other authority in the field might be just as problematic. Consider, for instance, a doctor who by some negligence botches a surgery and causes you personal injury. As a Christian you should be willing to forgive; but out of treating others (i.e., everyone else) as you want to be treated), remaining silent about a negligent doctor is also bad. These sorts of questions have lots of tricky details.

  4. Matthew Peak says

    There was an incident a few months ago where I was having lunch with a minister. During our conversation I brought up a controversial issue. A customer from another table actually walked up, got in my face and blatantly declared I was wrong on the issue before returning to his table.

    The minister was so angry at the rudeness that he told the customer ours was a private conversation and that the customer needed to “butt out.” He later apologized for his behavior, but I never saw anything wrong with anything said or done outside of the customer’s rudeness. In fact, I admired the minister for his boldness in not simply being passive in such a situation.

    During that week, I reflected on that moment and time and again the following scripture came to mind: “Open rebuke is better than hidden love.” – Proverbs 27:5

    • Matthew,

      You address a very important point. I believe mankind is so depraved, we do not know what sin is. In your example, when is anger good and when is it sinful? As a depraved man I do not know.

      Now the same issue with Mike’s original post. In this case there are two separate problems. 1st, it seems a lie may have been committed, that is to be forgiven. But is violating academic standards a sin? I do not know. In the academic world it is clearly wrong, but in the super-natural world does academic standards = God’s standards? As a depraved man I do not know. I say let the academic world judge academic laws, and God judge super-natural laws.

      In my world of an office environment. let’s say some bureaucrat makes a rule, and in order to get my job done I violate that rule. Did I violate the super-natural law? I do not know. Let my company judge whether I violated company rules, and let God judge super-natural law.

  5. As an academic myself, I would urge you to contact the editor-in-chief of the journal which published the plagiarized article. The journal should publish a retraction in its next issue, noting the plagiarism and apologizing for having accepted the paper. The department chair of the university or seminary which employs the plagiarist should hear about this as well.

    This sort of thing should not be allowed to happen, period. Punishment ought not to be swayed by the sympathy you may feel for the plagiarist–he has made his own bed–and anyway, where is your sympathy for the authors, or job-seekers, his “academic” work has unfairly displaced?–or by theological considerations that are more about you than him. Yes, we should forgive others, but not to the extent of unfairly protecting the wicked. Let Jesus deal with his soul, and his colleagues his career.

    • Not a journal–an academic press. Anyway, write the editor, and the Truth will out.

    • “Let Jesus deal with his soul, and his colleagues his career.”

      I agree. This is how it ties into being in the post-evangelical wilderness. The evangelical world mixes the worlds law with super-natural law. This is a clear case of academic law. It may or may not conflict with God’s super-natural law. If it does conflict with super-natural law, it is covered by grace, and it is none of my business. If it conflicts with academic law, it is the academic’s worlds role to judge.

    • I’m with Werner. Forgiveness is independent of discipline. We can forgive, but the sinner should also repent, and if damage was done to the original author or publisher, the plagiarist should have expected chastisement. The discipline that is demonstrated in Matthew18 should be independent from our forgiveness if (and if) the plagiarist truly repents.

      It’s hard to believe that an academic wouldn’t know “the rules”. It’s one thing to allude to a widely known source such as the Bible, or Shakespeare, or the Declaration of Independence, or Luther without giving the reference; but not to a scholarly article from which another stakes his own career, his reputation and his paycheck. The sort of thing that Mike described should have been referenced.

      General ideas may be another matter. If an idea has been “out there” for a while and widely known, one may use it with attribution–but quotes should not be ripped off verbatim, or even tweaked (in fact, tweaking may be worse, because it could be to avoid detection).

      In a sermon, or an informal essay such as op-ed piece or blog, I think it’s permissable to use a quote without attribution as long as one says at the very least, “As somebody once said…” This will let the reader or listener know that it didn’t originate there. Sometimes a quote is too good to waste, and the source can’t be retrieved; but there should at least be some indication that it came from somewhere else.

    • I think it’s worthwhile to remember that this is not a right/wrong vs. forgiveness issue only. The discipline of Mt. 18 incorporates mercy in the progression from one person going alone with the knowledge of the sin “just between the two of you,” to taking “one or two others along,” then bringing it before an entire church.

      As the number of people who know increases, it becomes harder on the sinner because of the factor of public pressure and the likelihood that more people will be impatient, even harsh. But when discipline is administered patiently, properly and with a view toward restoration (“love always hopes …”) there is still an element of mercy.

      The ultimate unfortunate outcome is what David wanted to avoid: “I am in deep distress. Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.” (2 Sam 24:14). Just turn on the news. When a scandal goes public in the world, it’s all over. Their mercy is basically non-existent. But what often surfaces later is that there was opportunity earlier to repudiate bad or corrupt behavior before it mushroomed into a bigger problem.

  6. I’m with Werner–just because God is forgiving doesn’t mean you’re allowed to keep sinning (as the person doing the sin), nor are you required to turn a blind eye (as the person knowing about the sin). Consider if this were a student who turned in a plagiarized paper–you can be forgiving all you like, but you can’t give them an A for it.

    • I may have just plagiarized you. Opening line, and general idea. Oops. 🙁

      But you were a lot more economical with words.

  7. I personally learned there are no second chances. This was what turned me from an evangelical into an agnostic…over the course of time. You see Christians are afraid of extending grace becuase they are afraid they will condone something in this case cheating and plagerism. But take the plagerism and substitute adultery, or being an alcoholic, or being gay, or getting his girlfriend pregnant. And for the record I won’t point to the issue of gluttony, pride, greed, materialism, etc.. being a sin…because in evangelicalism those sins are okay and embraced as being healthy. I mean you can’t struggle with porn but you could be 450 lbs and be on the worship team…and that’s fine. .

    Think of the opportunity that exists here….he did something which could kill his career. It could also destroy his finances, it could also effect his family and their wellbeing. His reputatation will be gone and he could run the risk of being unemployable. Would he be able to recover?

    I’d say probably not….

    And yet this is a situation or an opportunity to show him grace, give him an opportunity to change by showing him love. Does he deserve it….no. Could it be a powerful resolution to the problem. Absolutelty. He could realize that he’s getting a second chance…one he doesn’t deserve..out of love. In the process he could be transformed to live out grace in his own life, and show it to his wife, kids, family, students, etc.. Maybe it could be becuase he feels trapped in his mistake and showing grace will allow him the opportunity to come clean and start anew. Kind of like the woman at the well story…(I may be an agnostic..but after being an evangelcal Christian for 10 years, and countless Bible studies and devotions..I do know the Bible well….)

    So my advice is go ahead…be legalistic out of pride…and let’s create one more agnostic in the world. I’m sure that what Jesus would want. Besides my the agnostic association I frequent is in need of new members!! 🙂

    Eagle

    • well said…

    • Active adulterery is ignored? Dittto for alcoholics who are actively destroying themselves, or people given to fits of rage? You’ve been attending much more lax churches than even I have (though I grant you gluttony is definitely Not Mentioned).

      Of course there are 2nd chances. But “Go and sin no more” I believe the saying was, in the most famous 2nd chance of them all.

      • I beg to differ…I know people who were disciplined over adultery. I also knew others were faced discipline for popular issues that the evangelical church likes to smack them with. I was disciplined for confessing in a confidentila channel my own struggle with sin, so much so that it created problems for my career (of which I thought I was doing what God wanted…oh well…you have to live his servants!!) Textjunkie…who are you fooling….? There are a lot of evangelicals/fundys who take great personal pleasure in hammering out someone else…why? It’s becuase they feel better. Hey it’s easier to tear down someone else when you are not dealing with that sin.

        So take the “go and sin no more…”

        Does that mean a guy will never again have a lusting thought? But if they were forgiven once for adultery will they be forgiven again?

        If a person has hatred in their heart and they have already been forgiven for murder once…will they be forgiven a second time?

        I mean your interpretation of go and sin no more…”conviently forgets “Jesus command to forgive 70 x 7 (which I am assuiming is not 149…but indefinately…)

        But I’ll defer to what 19th century agnostic Robert Ingersall said about Bible interpretation…”The inspiration of the Bible depends upon the ignorance of the gentleman who reads it.”

        Nuff said….

  8. Mike Bell is right:

    >> My God is a God of second chances. I am thankful that although I sin, Jesus’ sacrifice has paid for my punishment. God has given me a second chance, and a third, and a fourth. Can I do anything else but the same? <<

    The answer to the question is as clear as can be in Matthew 6:15: “But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

    I have no idea about the right thing to do about the plagiarism. But Mike is right about the need for each of us to act and think in mercy.

    Last Sunday while I was out driving in the fresh snow and blustery winds a big ostentatious pickup truck came barreling up behind me and rode my tail until a fork in the road. As soon as he could, the other driver raced his engine and accelerated as if he were desperate to make up the 50 feet or so of pavement that he’d lost while stuck behind me. I felt myself wishing the truck driver would crash, and thinking that a God of Justice might like to bring that crash about. But then I remembered that the measure of judgement and grace that I measure out to others is the same measure that I’ll receive.So instead, I prayed for the hot rod to have a safe journey.

    Later that day, my daughter called and said she’d slipped off the side of the road while avoiding a speeding ambulance . . . .but that she and the car were OK and somebody was helping her get out of the ditch.

  9. Ok, this probably means I am a bad person, but the whole forgiveness point of the article comes in second for me. I just want to know who it is now! I know you can’t tell us, but now that you’ve said all that I really just want to know! Not fair….

  10. I think there is a difference between forgiving and overlooking. In essence I agree with Werner’s well worded comment above. I don’t think confronting when done in a loving manner excludes forgiveness or makes it impossible. When done in the spirit of restorative justice, it can even be a catalyst for forgiveness.

    There is also may be a moral imperative to stop the sinful behavior before more damage is done, but again, this can be done in a restorative way. That is always and without a doubt the more difficult path but worth the journey imho.

  11. I remember several years ago noticing some (IMO) too-close-for-coincidence similarities between the (earlier and now superseded) editions by two different authors of two 1st-year NT Greek grammars. In the process of voicing my concerns about this I encountered another person who had noticed the same thing and, IIRC, was going to confront the one who, based on publication date, appeared to have done the plagiarizing. For various reasons nothing concrete came of this, though I believe I even wrote the publisher with my concerns and “evidence” (the wording of the introduction seemingly lifted almost wholesale, the order and descriptions of the chapters, etc.). Very disappointing to see this. IIRC, I think it was the author who has gone on to write and sell numerous books who appeared to have done the non-credited copying.

  12. While I agree with second chances, this sounds more like an issue of personal (and professional) integrity, of which the person in question is either unaware or simply isn’t concerned with. Jesus had compassion on those who acknowledged their sin and weakness, but nothing but condemnation for those who refused to do so. But most of us don’t see our duplicity or faults, and when we do we usually try to justify them.

    But if we held all ministers to this standard of integrity, where would preaching be (as noted above by Matthew Peak – see, credit where credit is due 😉 )? I remember watching a well known, rather large, preacher on TV several years ago talking about the coming economic collapse that would lead to the rise of anti-christ. He went on for 10 minutes about the devaluation of Germany’s currency in the 1930s and I kept thinking ‘I’ve heard this before’. I realized that he was quoting word-for-word from Larry Burkett’s ‘Coming Economic Earthquake’ without ever (to the best of my knowledge) mentioning the author’s name or source. But he has a large and ‘sucessful’ ‘ministry’ so God must bless that kind of thing. (??)

    • I once heard a pastor preach “The Prayer of Jabez” about 6 months before the book came out. As it turns out, he was a friend of Bruce Wilkinson’s, and the book was originally self-published by Wilkinson and copies were sent to his friends.

      The same pastor also preached a series called “Running with the Giants” without giving credit to John Maxwell. Maxwell later visited the church and did a much better job of delivering the content than the pastor did. Funny thing was, a pastor from another local church visited one Sunday night during the series, and preached the exact same sermon on Noah that the pastor had preached two Sunday mornings before.

      I do use commentaries when preparing a sermon, for aid with historical context, word studies, and sometimes, even using an outline that might be found in a commentary. I will sometimes use the outline, then fill in my own meat. I don’t think there are a lot of pastors that don’t act in a similar way. I figure that there have been many wise men and women before me who have some valuable things to offer…from the early church fathers to John Stott and NT Wright, there are folks who have written useful and needed commentaries. You do need to give credit where credit is due, though.

      Final story…I was once employed at a church whose senior pastor said that he never used commentaries and outside resources for sermon prep, because his “source of information was the Bible” (spoken in the most pastoral, deep Baptist voice one can muster), and he didn’t need anything else. Honestly, he just wasn’t a very good orator, which was likely a by-product of not being a good sermon writer, which was a product of not being willing to research. He later admitted to me that he didn’t read books and commentaries as source material because he just didn’t like to read.

  13. Has anyone here, preacher or academic, ever actually had or presented a genuinely “original” thought?

    • I tend to believe original thoughts should be shunned in the theological world, or at least closely scrutinized. but a guy could do a little work in presenting it to the current generation with current language and a sense of freshness. Using that thought to address particular problems and ideas current in contemporary society.

    • I had an original thought today…

      For what it’s worth… What is the difference between I guy with a cold and a boxer.

      One guy blows his nose, the other knows his blows!

      Not that funny, but it is original!

  14. Let’s keep the distinction clear between two very different things.

    Standing in a pulpit and cribbing well-composed thoughts and words from others is a wide-spread and ‘mostly harmless’ practice. It might even be adviseable for pastors who aren’t very good at writing sermons. But selling or publishing someone else’s work as if it were your own is dishonest and venal.

  15. In my experience, pastors and theologians often seem to disregard intellectual honesty (ie, academic standards), just as much as they violate rules of business (good accounting practices, financial integrity) etc.

    Three possible explanations:
    1. They feel the end justify the means.
    2. The feel themselves above the rabble (ie, the rest of us).
    3. Personality type: Regarding this one, in my experience a large number of especially evangelical and Reformed pastors are all of a similar personality type – good on delivery, vague on details, forceful but slightly ignorant of the real world. People with these characteristics might be more easily persuaded (in their own minds) that these issues are of lesser importance.
    Interestingly though, I have found fewer Lutheran pastors to be of this mindset than others.

  16. On the positive side of the ledger, sermon swapping provided PG Wodehouse with a great Wooster/Jeeves story: “The Great Sermon Handicap.”

  17. Commented deleted by moderator.

    • Comment deleted because comment being responded to was deleted.

    • I think everyone in this thread agrees that what the prominent writer Mike Bell discusses in the OP was wrong. Nobody here is condoning “liars, swindlers and those who practice falsehoods.” But Mark’s definitions of those terms are not binding on anyone else and certainly don’t apply to all situations. Rudyard Kipling, for one, insists that cribbing the words and ideas of others is not only legitimate, but often the only way to say anything really valuable:

      When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre
      He’d heard men sing on land and sea,
      An’ what he thought ‘e might require
      ‘E went and took–the same as me!

      The market-girls and fishermen
      The shepherds and’ the sailors too
      They ‘eard old songs turn up again
      But kep’ it quiet–same as you!

      They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed
      They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss
      But winked at ‘Omer down the road
      An’ ‘e winked back–the same as us.

    • Mark…

      I’ll defer to what 19th century agnostic Robert Ingersall said about Bible reading…”The inspiration of the Bible depends upon the ignorance of the gentleman who reads it.”

      Just ignore me…as an agnostic I’m just a product of modern day evangelcalism… 😀

      • If you’re an agnostic what benefits do you get reading posts from a supposedly Christian website?

        • Still trying to get answers for what happened and read about other people’s experineces. Somehow I’ve slowly leanring that I am not alone in being singed by a toxic faith system.

  18. Academic dishonesty and the potential consequences (justice vs mercy) are the core of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night (Peter Wimsey mystery). Good book!

    Religious plagiarism is an issue with Seventh-Day Adventists, with early Adventist writings that are. . . well, found in earlier Christian writing. There are variousexplanations ranging from “that’s what everybody did back then” to blaming assistant compilers who were overeager to turn out Ellen White books the church could sell to just plain plagiarism.

  19. It’s pretty well known that fraud when there almost always pressure or motive, oportunity, and some kind of rationalization of the behavior (this is known as the “fraud triangle” in literature on criminal fraud). I can see the possibility of all three of these being present in the case of academics and preachers. Definitely there’s pressure for publishing success or great sermonizing; opportunities are many because there’s often little oversight; and rationalizing it as helping to further God’s work or grow the church or strengthen other belivers is probably pretty common.

    Almost anyone can be susceptible if those three factors are present. I’ve even seen it in my own family. So the question should be not only what to do once the behavior has occurred in terms of forgiveness, confrontation, restoration, repentence, etc. The larger question is how can we arrange things so that these factors aren’t present? Are we contributing to that pressure to publish or have a great sermon at all costs to entertain us? Do we fail to insist on oversight and controls and accountability in Christian institutional or organizational settings? Do we accept anything that purports to further the gospel or help believers, even if it’s unwise in and of itself? I know I have probably been complicit in doing some of these things. I certainly don’t have the power to change much in terms of the larger picture, but I hope I can at least try to avoid contributing to the problem.

    Peace.