Review: Excellence: the Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue, by Andreas J. Köstenberger

Excellence: the Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. Andreas J. Köstenberger. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

Bible and theology programs cover many topics, but ethics are often not included in such master’s programs. Köstenberger’s work offers young scholars—and older ones—the opportunity to think through just what it means to be a committed, believing evangelical Christian called to scholarship in some way, whether as pastor or teacher. Köstenberger initially shares some of his own faith journey before laying out the foundation of his work, then moving on to specific virtues necessary for godly scholars. Each chapter examining a virtue involves a biblical theology of that virtue, as well as specifying actions said virtue entails for scholars in particular.

The author lays bare his motives in writing at the very beginning: he feels there is a lack of books on this topic from a biblical, theological perspective, for one. Secondly, he desires young scholars to hold tightly both to their faith commitment and their commitment to scholarship, not sacrificing integrity in either area.

Founding his study in the preeminence or excellence of God, Köstenberger points out that God excels in all his ways, and those made in the imago Dei are called to imitate God (Eph 5:1). He stresses that such striving results from reliance on divine power and grace, and seeking divine guidance, thus is not a “work”. Excellence starts with character, then manifests itself in deeds; like holiness, it has to do with being unique and set apart, as God is. Thus, pursuit of these two related traits is an integral part of growth in sanctification. Köstenberger repeatedly emphasizes that as Christians, new life and the pursuit of virtues is only possible because of God’s prior grace and enabling Spirit within believers—in other words, this is not a “works” message in any way. He bases his call for excellence on 2 Pet 1:3–11, so verses from this passage reoccur throughout the book.

From this foundation, the author divides the virtues into the categories of vocational excellence, moral excellence, and relational excellence. Rather than attempting to discuss each virtue in depth, the focus here will be on one, or at most two, virtues from each section, to get a representative feel for each section as a whole. Under vocational excellence, Köstenberger mentions diligence, courage, passion, restraint, creativity and eloquence. Creativity and eloquence are traits not always associated with scholars, especially evangelical ones. However, the author makes a strong case for valuing and cultivating these skills, mentioning as one example God’s gifting Bezalel and Oholiab with creative abilities for the purpose of constructing the tabernacle as an example of God’s interest in beauty and creative endeavors. Not content with being descriptive alone, he then prescribes some means by which scholars can develop more creativity in their own work: by reading inventive authors (he suggests N.T. Wright), studying secondary literature on communication, and so forth.

Under moral excellence, Köstenberger mentions integrity, fidelity, and wisdom. Fidelity for a scholar means faithfulness to the scholarly calling by intentionally mentoring students, to a high view of Scripture, one’s institution, and oneself. Some of these commitments may seem obvious, but in other ways they actually counter typical practices. Scholars focused on publishing sometimes struggle to place an equal value on mentoring and close relationships, and vice versa, making this a timely reminder of the need for both aspects.

The final category, relational excellence, includes grace, humility, interdependence and love. Grace is a key point here, in this reviewer’s opinion: as has been often noted, many scholarly dialogues display more heat than light. A Christian scholar ought to be marked not merely by doctrinal beliefs, but in their actions toward others, and certainly one can disagree in a courteous manner while maintaining a firm position. Rarely is a person persuaded to change their view after being degraded, insulted, or otherwise treated poorly, and as scholars in pursuit of truth, sharing truth should be a primary objective. However, personal feelings, the excitement of the moment, and other factors can cause a scholar to lose sight of the ultimate goal, and treat their interlocutor in a very uncharitable manner. Truth and grace are not mutually exclusive traits in God or in Christians, and upholding both could do much to change the way Christians are perceived and their arguments received in the public square.

This review is not intended to suggest that Köstenberger’s book is perfect; no human work deserves that label. Any points of disagreement, however, are minor at best. A topic generally passed over despite its centrality, here treated with care and the wisdom that comes from years of experience, make this book one every scholar should buy and work through thoughtfully. To adapt a line from Augustine’s Confessions, “Take up and read!” The review copy was generously provided by Crossway.

About Stephanie Lowery

I studied systematic theology at Wheaton College Graduate School, studying under Daniel Treier and writing my dissertation on ecclesiological models in Africa. I grew up in East Africa, and am happy to have returned at long last!
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