Plagiarism is defined as a writer’s assimilating another’s words or ideas and depicting them as his own. Plagiarism is a form of theft, and in both academic and journalistic settings it is often rightly grounds for expulsion. Depredation of another’s ideas, and not merely his words, constitutes plagiarism. If one learns an idea from another, he may not exhibit it as his own.
Many writers (and speakers) who would never commit the offense of plagiarism seem quite oblivious to, and are willing to, commit the related offense of intellectual ingratitude—an unwillingness to give credit to whom it is due. They do not so much intentionally pilfer the words and ideas of others as they simply write (and speak) as though what they communicate is generally original. They have at their disposal instruments for acknowledging the influence on their thinking, but they fail (or refuse) to employ them.
In academic writing, footnotes are an acceptable instrument of acknowledgement. Unfortunately, footnotes have fallen on hard times, even in academia (Gertrude Himmelfarb laments “Where have all the footnotes gone?”). We can expect that a postmodern ambience, in which even tacky, fifth-rate teenage writers are respected as “creators of reality,” will be restive toward the painstaking task of footnoting. But careful scholarship is less about sheer brilliance than precise documentation. Geniuses are not assumed to have become scholars until they learn how accurately to acknowledge their sources. Structure is no less important than content.
Most communication is not academic or journalistic, however, and those rules of acknowledgement do not apply. However, even in informal articles like this one, writers should not give the impression that their ideas are original when, in fact, they are not. For some reason, it appears as though many writers (and speakers) assume that their audience will think less of them if they acknowledge their lack of originality, the sources on whom they depend. These writers (and speakers) can delude the unwary, but they embarrass themselves in the eyes of their more well-read readers. I know of several (Christian) writers who consistently employ the ideas of others while rarely giving them due credit. I even encounter “borrowed,” but unacknowledged, turns of phrase. This offense is not merely a literary miscue; it reflects a character defect.
Why do writers (and speakers) commit this offense? I am not certain, but I will speculate.
Some writers (and speakers) covet a reputation for originality. This desire is not merely base; it is embarrassingly naive. There is nothing new under the sun. All of us have gotten our main ideas from somebody else, going all the way back to Adam, who was surely created by God with “innate ideas.” God alone is original, and we should be (gratefully acknowledging) imitators. I know of a minister and writer who over the years has discovered several theological insights long known by his forbearers, but capitalizes on every discovery as though it were a breathtaking theological insight. Because it is new to him, it is new. Perhaps he believes that his readers and those under his care will lose respect for him if he simply acknowledges his debt to the past. Actually, the more astute among his audience would respect him if he simply acknowledged the influences on his thought. To admit that we are unoriginal is simply to acknowledge that we are creatures. There is nothing demeaning about that.
A more noble (though no less erroneous) reason for refusal to grant due credit is, I suspect, the desire to avoid implicitly condoning objectionable sources. Ministers, for example, might be reluctant to acknowledge their reliance on the dazzling insight of an otherwise deviant theologian for fear that their church members may read the writings of this theologian and adopt his deviant views. This reasoning seems not to account for the fact that (with rare exception, like pornography) there are no unsafe writers, only undiscerning readers. Christians should be taught to read discerningly. Even if they are not, however, the seemingly pastoral reasoning that avoids acknowledgement of sources on the grounds that such acknowledgement may misdirect the saint, fails on another count. In the final analysis, there are no entirely “safe” writers (including Sandlin). All writers suffer from blind spots, and if our criterion for acknowledgment is a writer’s avoidance of all error, we would acknowledge nothing but the Bible. Let us just frankly admit that severely mistaken — even heretical — writers can benefit us. I have been influenced and helped by writers as diverse as Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin and Bernard, Whitfield and Wesley, Kuyper and Tozer, Van Til and Barth, Henry and Bloesch, Sowell and Berlin, Nisbet and MacArthur, Frame and Pinnock, and Ryrie and Rushdoony. I do not have the luxury of learning only from writers that I deem (at the moment) “safe.” It has been said (and I would give due credit if I knew who first said it) that the difference between what we are like today and what we will be five years from now will be determined, humanly speaking, by the books we read and the people we meet. One reason we should be willing to read “unsafe” books is that our current assessment of what constitutes “safe” may not be entirely accurate. Only by encountering new ideas may we test our current opinions (and prejudices). We need not be afraid of exposing those under our care to a wide variety of views, as long as we also ground those folks in the reality of the Person of Jesus Christ and the truth of His Word.
Whatever the reason for neglect of acknowledging the influences on our thinking, it is wrong. We should give credit—including intellectual credit—where credit is due.
By the way, I got the idea for this article from a shrewd review of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, “In re Allan Bloom: A Respectful Dissent,: by George Anastatlo, in The Great Ideas Today 1988 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica).
1. Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?”, On Looking into the Abyss (new York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), ch. 6.