Every now and then I’ll read a book that feels like it came at just the right time. Working my way through Andreas Kostenberger’s recent book Excellence, was just one of the those times. Post-seminary, I’m finding myself in a kind of no-man’s land. I went to seminary to train for the academy, but I’m not yet really in the academy. Dallas is an excellent seminary, but the Ph.D program is where more of the academic formation takes place, rather than the Th.M program (not that I wasn’t developed academically in getting my degree, far from it!). As I look forward to completing Ph.D studies one day (we’ll see!) I’m working with my church and am teaching in a local Christian high school.
This basically means I’m trying to continue developing academically outside of a school structure. As far as knowledge expansion goes, I think I’m good to go, but Kostenberger’s book has brought a fresh perspective into view and reminded me that character is a key part of what makes a good scholar. While I can work on developing my character, it is really as I seek to know God more clearly that the Spirit will work in my heart to develop these virtues. I can try, but I am dependent on God to grow in excellence.
The essence of Kostenberger’s work is that it
represents an attempt to probe the nature of scholarly excellence and to suggest ways in which we can make progress in our quest to achieve it (40).
He then adds that
This book cannot substitute for a flesh-and-blood mentor, but perhaps it can help you follow the calling of God in your life and inspire you to pursue greater excellence in your fulfillment of that call (41).
As a tool to send you down the path to virtue, Kostenberger’s book is highly accessible. It is written to young scholars (ideally Ph.D students) but is full of wisdom that would be good reminders for older scholars in the church as well. Stylistically, it is clear and an easy, meditative read. It should probably be essential reading your first year of seminary to hopefully ward off the arrogance that tends to come with advanced theological studies.
Diving into the contents, Kostenberger organizes his book around four parts:
- Foundations for Excellence
- Vocational Excellence
- Moral Excellence
- Relational Excellence
I tend to see these triperspectivally, which means I see the latter three parts as respectively detailing the normative, existential, and situational dimensions of excellence. When it comes to each chapter in the following outline, Kostenberger generally begins by explaining the attribute from relevant passages in the Old and New Testament so that they are biblically defined. He then explains how a scholar would model that particular attribute in their work. As just a resource on pursuing excellence, even someone who doesn’t plan on being a scholar any time would benefit from Kostenberger’s sketching chapter to chapter a biblical theology of excellence. They would then need to think about how it would apply to their particular vocation.
Foundations for Excellence
Kostenberger roots the pursuit of excellence in the character of God, and specifically in his holiness (chapter 1). He then shows from Scripture how we are called to excellence specifically by unpacking 2 Peter 1:3-11 (chapter 2). These verses then form the framework for the next three sections of the book. Before getting to that though, Kostenberger sketches out a short biblical theology of holiness and emphasizes that our call to it means becoming more who we are in Christ (chapter 3). The section then ends with a chapter on Christian spirituality especially as it pertains to Christian scholarship (chapter 4).
With the foundations in place, this section begins unpacking the virtues that interdependently lead to vocational excellence. I see these as the normative perspective on excellence since they outline what any scholar, Christian or not, ought to strive for in their vocation. Kostenberger begins with diligence (chapter 5) to which he adds courage (chapter 6), passion (chapter 7), restraint (chapter 8.), creativity (chapter 9), and eloquence (chapter 10). All of these work in tandem to exude excellence in scholarly work. A scholar needs to have the courage to pursue truth, but also the restraint to not demonize people who disagree with him. Likewise, he needs to be passionate about his studies, but diligent enough to complete works that are started. The final product should be creatively expressed, but also in an eloquent way. Being novel just to be novel may hinder communication, but so might a dry, dusty presentation of the research.
While there is certainly a moral component to the virtues related to vocational excellence, the virtues in this section are more in line with what we might expect when talking about Christian character. Here there is just a trio of attributes: integrity (chapter 11), fidelity (chapter 12), and wisdom (chapter 13). These attributes get more to the heart of excellence, especially from a Christian perspective which is why I see them outlining the existential perspective on excellence. A non-Christian scholar can certainly pursue integrity (and should!) but as a Christian, we ground integrity in our calling from God and our faithfulness to it. Wisdom similarly is found in Christ.
Finally, Kostenberger turns to attributes that most readily show up in our relationships. I see this as the situational perspective on excellence since our relationships are the everyday situations where excellence can be displayed. He starts exploring the nature of grace in scholarship (chapter 14), and then continues to humility (chapter 15), interdependence (chapter 16) and ends with love (chapter 17). A scholar should be one who is humble in his attitude even though he is prone to be puffed up by his knowledge. He should also be one to extend grace to others, realizing his own scholarly growth is a result of God’s grace to him. He should realize his work is interdependent with others and no scholar can do it all alone. Finally, his writing and interacting with others should spring from Christian love. Scholarly work then is just one more way we can love God and love others.
This is most likely a book I’ll need to revisit in the future. It was very timely for me right now and gave me many avenues for character examination. I would readily recommend this book to anyone serving in ministry whether pulpit or classroom (or both!) It might be helpful as well for anyone looking to develop Christian character in their vocation as I said earlier. The book is clearly written to Christian scholars, but the explanation of virtues would fit any vocation. Overall then, I really enjoyed reading this book and found it to be very helpful in my own vocational and character formation.
- Author: Andreas J. Kostenberger
- Title: Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue
- Publisher: Crossway (October 5, 2011)
- Paperback: 272pgs
- Reading Level: Bible School (but aimed at doctoral students)
- Audience Appeal: Prophets entering Christian scholarship who want priestly advice on character formation
[You’re reading this review because I requested a review copy of Excellence: The Character of God and Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue from Crossway Books and they said yes!]