I just finished reading Andreas Köstenberger’s Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Crossway, 2011). It seems that the theme of excellence is written about and discussed in many different venues of Christian ministry these days. It is hard to find a resource that treats the subject with humility, thoroughness, and theological consideration. In short, there is a plethora of books on excellence, but very few seem to be, well, excellent. Köstenberger’s work lives up to its title.
Full disclosure—I do have a perspective on Dr. Köstenberger that perhaps some of his readers do not. He is the Director of Ph.D. studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where I did my master’s and doctoral work. I first met Dr. Köstenberger in an introductory course that all incoming Ph.D. students must take called Introduction to Research. The first day of class (it was just a two day class, each eight hours in length), there were two book reviews due. One was on The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. The other was on Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams. All this was explained very clearly in the syllabus. The syllabi were mailed out to us months before the class began. I was in the process of closing out my youth ministry in another state, selling my house, and packing up to move to North Carolina. The syllabus which I had received (and had never looked at) got lost. That meant that I showed up for the first day of class in my Ph.D. program without having my book reviews ready to submit. It’s the stuff of which nightmares are made!
Dr. Köstenberger entered the seminar room, welcomed us, and said that he would be taking up the papers at the break. Everyone around the table began taking out their papers and their books, preparing for the day’s discussions. I had no papers. I had not purchased the books. Tears began forming in my eyes at that moment. After composing myself, I walked up to Dr. Köstenberger and told him my predicament. He was so gracious. He gave me a whole week to get my book reviews submitted. I have never forgotten that.
Dr. Köstenberger has always struck me as a man who has dedicated his life to excellence in the name of Christ. His research, writings, presentations, classes, and expositions of Scripture are laden with meaning, insight, relevance, and worth. He told us in that Intro to Research course that when writing and researching, we must do whatever it took within the bounds of integrity to produce scholarship that made a meaningful contribution. He is a serious scholar, and he would not tolerate mediocrity from us. Perish the one who did so, as we all quickly learned!
That brings me to this brief review of Excellence.Köstenberger begins the work by describing his conversion to Christianity as a young economics scholar in Vienna, Austria, where he was reared. He provided a brief narrative of how he came to realize the sacrifice Christ paid on his behalf, how he came to the United States to study at Columbia International University (then Columbia Bible College and Graduate School) and then at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and how he met and married his wife, Marny. This personal narrative provides the contextual framework for what he set out to do in the book. Köstenberger then expresses his reason for writing: “pleading with zealous young theological students not to sacrifice their scholarly integrity for the sake of attaining academic respectability” (24). This is certainly a significant and relevant plea these days.
The book is divided into four parts. The first part lays a biblical and theological foundation for the whole work. It is the character of God that we imitate as we engage in scholarly pursuits. Köstenberger writes, “Being set apart as a scholar entails, among other things, a rejection of the false modernist dichotomy between faith and scholarship, as well as resistance toward the academic and social pressures of pluralism in a culture that celebrates diversity and eschews all notions of absolute, compelling truth” (66). God’s moral excellencies and His holiness are to motivate us and serve as a pattern for our entire perspective, and are thus to be the animating factors in our scholarship.
The second part of the book is devoted to specific virtues in research, writing, and teaching. Köstenberger devotes a chapter to these six virtues: diligence, courage, passion, restraint, creativity, and eloquence. On courage, Köstenberger observes that “courage sustains an interesting relationship with obedience and integrity. One can be courageous only to the point that one has been obedient to engage in responsible scholarly work and has committed oneself to a high standard of academic excellence” (114). In each of these chapters, Köstenberger provides biblical definitions and applications of the virtues, then explains, illustrates, and applies them as scholars should observe them.
Next, Köstenberger addresses what he calls “moral excellence.” Again, he identifies some specific moral virtues that must mark the life of any scholar, but especially the scholar of theology. These are integrity, fidelity, and wisdom. On integrity, Köstenberger notes that this is a virtue that ought to permeate every aspect of a believer’s life, from the small things to the big things. He says that “[i]ntegrity is a Christian virtue that transcends the scholarly vocation and is therefore a necessary element of any believer’s growth” (160). Without each of the moral excellencies discussed, it is really not possible to engage in theological scholarship. Scholarship that is not grounded in these moral excellencies is infected with hypocrisy in its core.
Lastly, Köstenberger treats four virtues which he calls “relational” excellencies. These are grace, humility, interdependence, and love. Similar to the moral excellencies, Christian scholarship demands these virtues. I was particularly struck by Köstenberger’s discussion on interdependence, because it seems to be generally neglected in discussions on excellence. He writes, “learning takes place not in isolation but in community. Learning in community, in turn, will encourage humility, respect for others’ views, and a more collaborative and less competitive spirit. The virtue of interdependence is reflected beautifully in the New Testament concept of the church as the body of Christ” (221-222). For Christians to miss these virtues may render their work respectable to the academy (maybe not), but at the price of betraying their identity and calling.
Köstenberger’s writing style is engaging, and he writes with the insight of a man who is deeply committed as a child of God, as a devoted husband and father, as a churchman, and of course, as a teacher, and an academic. He has been studying, writing, and teaching for long enough to be able to draw from a vast store of experiences and tried wisdom that provide powerful examples and build trust between him and the reader. He often uses himself as an example of what not to do, discussing how he has learned from mistakes and is continuing to struggle himself to be marked by excellence. This has the effect of giving hope to readers who also have not yet arrived in their journey as Christian sojourners and scholars.
The only words I would offer in critique (and the critique is minor) would be to suggest that the book seems too narrowly focused on students and scholars in biblical or theological studies. My field is in history and philosophy, and I found Dr. Köstenberger’s admonitions and encouragements quite valuable. Still, I had to consciously place myself within the range of his plea as I was reading, because it seemed he limited his target audience to those who mainly work in the fields of Old and New Testament and theology.
Every person who plans to do anything in Christian ministry, whether he is a student, a pastor, a teacher, or a missionary ought to take up this book and read. No doubt, the Lord will use Köstenberger’s work to strongly edify and provide sure direction to servants of Christ who write, teach, study, and preach.