Justice Primer; is this really a scandal?

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Canon Press has pulled their recent book, Justice Primer, from their list, issuing an apology for some few sentences which were unattributed to their original authors. Doug Wilsons' co-author, Randy Booth, has acknowledged he is the guilty party, and the father-rule haters are gleeful at their success in humiliating Doug.

Yet here in the calm, solely by the grace of God, there are a couple things that need to be said about pastors and books.

Most pastors, to a greater or lesser degree, use manuscripts in the pulpit, and therefore write from 2,500 to 10,000 words each week, just for their preaching. As we write those manuscripts, we have first read and read other men's preaching and teaching, so when it comes to writing our manuscript, we pull in direct quotes from others' work and face the decision whether to cite that work in our manuscript, itself; but also, whether to cite that work in our preaching on Lord's Day. It's similar to the work of a prof lecturing. If we had a way to record profs' lectures and run them through a search site that included all copyrighted works, it's long been my conviction that a large percentage of academics' lectures would be found to contain plagiarism. But is it really that simple?

We can all see the difference between preaching and lecturing, on the one hand, and blogging and writing articles and books, on the other hand...

I've always been sympathetic to pastors accused of plagiarism because I know, personally, how awkward it can be to stop in the middle of an exhortation to say, “this particular sentence is a quote from Calvin’s sermon on this text.” It robs the sermon of continuity and authority, even seeming to congregants to be pedantic. So, including a couple sentences from another source in our manuscript doesn’t mean we are going to stop in the middle of the sermon and identify the source of those ten or twenty words. And if we know we’re not going to stop in the middle of the sermon to identify the source, we easily get sloppy and don’t bother putting the sentence in quote marks and including the source in the manuscript.

Now then, years later we are under deadline and looking for material to pull into our book, and kabloom! Scandal erupts and we are left with egg on our face...

But let’s have a little humility and gentleness in all this. Doug has to be firm in his response, but the rest of us should be understanding of pastors who write and get lazy in pulling in excerpts from their sermon manuscripts. And I say this as the son of one father who was a well-known author, editor, and publisher and a father-in-law who was a well-known author, editor, and publisher. In other words, publishing, editing, and writing are in my DNA and this failure of Justice Primer seems more in the nature of a serious wrong committed unintentionally than an evil. Yes, the book should be pulled. Yes, the authors and editors should apologize. But Randy Booth’s error is understandable and should put all of us in the ministry on guard.

One final thing: I’ve often told the congregation I have the privilege of serving that I have not one original thought. That everything I say and write comes from someone I’ve learned from and although I’ll use attributions whenever appropriate, no one should think I have anything interesting or unique to say myself. Further, that when I go back and read my Dad’s books and articles form my childhood, I realize that an awful lot of what he said and taught comes out of me verbatim, without having seen what he wrote for decades and decades.

Hope this helps us be merciful to Doug and Randy. They’re good men and faithful pastors.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!