In his book, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue, Andreas Kostenberger makes a compelling case for putting effort into cultivating a virtuous life. Perhaps Reformed people may shy away from the subject, for fear that such an effort will overshadow the Holy Spirit’s work of grace in our hearts. But Kostenberger anchors his argument in precisely the only place where it can take a true hold, in the character of God. “Excellence starts and ends with God,” he explains, “and is first and foremost a hallmark and attribute of God. Without God as our starting point and continual frame of reference, our discussion of excellence would be hopelessly inadequate.” Not only that, but it would very likely lead us to wandering in the darkness of works-righteousness. To avoid this Kostenberger reminds us very early on to “rest in God’s grace, look to him for guidance, and then do the work (in that order!)”
So Kostenberger begins his book with an exposition of the attributes of God, and explains how excellence is a characteristic of each one of those attributes. He defines excellence as “the quality of standing out or towering above the rest, being eminent or superior . . . and distinguishing oneself in some special or extraordinary way.” Further, because God is excellent in all that He does, so must we be excellent in everything that we do. From here Kostenberger applies these ideas to a number of specific virtues that Christians, and scholars in particular, should develop, with a chapter devoted to each virtue.
But while the book begins with strength and conviction, it does wane toward the end. Kostenberger repeats himself in a number of chapters, and I found myself wondering whether each chapter was too long or too short; whether the treatment of each virtue was too thorough or too shallow. Either way, by the time I reached the final chapter on love, a chapter that should have been the consummate moment of the book, it felt too much like an afterthought.
One further criticism that I have is directed toward his argument for restraint. He mentions repeatedly the need to treat other scholars with respect and to avoid giving offense. No doubt there is truth in this, as being gracious can soften hard hearts, and we do know that “a gentle word turns away wrath.” But his position that Christian scholars must be nice and gentle at all times, and are never purposefully to give offense, is not an argument that balances the scriptural evidence. The Word of God is replete with hard and offensive words for those who harden their hearts to the truth, with the harshest words reserved for those who know better. Even if one accepts Kostenberger’s claim that the offensive words of Christ were part of His unique redemptive-historical ministry and are not to be imitated, there still remain the offensive words of Paul, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., that need to be accounted for.
Rather, I would hold that there are godly ways to give offense; ways that involve a glimpse, even through our harsh words, of the endless grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ. There are times, plenty of them, when it’s appropriate for Christian leaders, including academics, to publicly denounce and even mock the lies of the devil in the world. For the devil, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, “cannot stand to be mocked.” This does require care, tact, and practice, of course, but return fire has a necessary place in every holy plan of attack.
Nevertheless, I said that Kostenberger makes a compelling case in his book, and I don’t want to give the impression otherwise. Martin Luther once called Aristotle’s Ethics the “enemy of grace,” but Kostenberger shows that the formation of a virtuous life necessarily follows from a proper understanding of God’s grace. He grounds the discussion of each virtue in the pages of Scripture, and so convinces us that we, too, must adorn our lives with these virtues. For they are indeed the fruits of the Spirit, so developing and cultivating them is both right and proper. Although the book applies the pursuit of virtue to the scholar, this pursuit should mark the life of every Christian in every vocation, and so its principles apply for every believer. Being particular about being excellent is a noble and thankful attitude for a believer to have, for in the end it both glorifies God and draws others to Him.