Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue, by Andreas J. Kostenberger
By Justin Hawkins
Andreas J. Kostenberger’s position at the top of evangelical Biblical scholarship affords him a particularly privileged vantage point to comment on the challenges and joys of the Christian scholarly task. Yet his Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue is a work that does not live up to Kostenberger’s reputation for academic rigor and insightful argumentation.
Excellence analyzes the Christian scholarly vocation in four sections. The first section is dedicated to grounding Christian scholarship in the nature of God. The remaining sections expound upon various virtues that should characterize a Christian scholar: Vocational Excellences (part two), Moral Excellence (part three), and Relational Excellences (part four). These various virtues cannot be hermetically distinct from each other, but must interpenetrate in the life of the Christian scholar.
Kostenberger is at his best when he speaks from his immense experience that few share. He devastates any notion that the scholar’s life can be a bifurcated one where the scholarly task bears no weight upon his personal life, and where personal life is sealed out of the university office. Though it is often platitudinous and elementary (does a seminarian really need to be reminded not to plagiarize, or that diligence is an important academic virtue?), he is at his best when his argument is least expected. The complementary chapters on passion and restraint demonstrate a clear knowledge into their interconnectedness that can only come from experiences, likely an experience marked by lamentable drifts into exaggerations of both qualities.
But the truly surprising feature of this book is that Kostenberger’s reputation for excellence in writing is only too infrequently on display in this book. If the subtitle accurately reflects Kostenberger’s interest to address the question of “the pursuit of scholarly virtue,” the substance of the book is at once too general and too narrow. It is too general because a significant amount of the book is given over to discussions about the nature of God and the nature of sanctification that, while accurate, pertain to all Christians universally. Thus it is very likely that those scholars – ostensibly so mature as to know the scriptures to a degree that warrants their academic commentary on them – will skim or skip this part entirely as accurate but extraneous material.
Yet the book is simultaneously too narrow because, when Kostenberger does focus his argument directly on the scholarly vocation, it is only relevant to Biblical Studies scholars. Though I am sure it was not Kostenberger’s intent, the implication of the book often seemed to be that a Christian scholar is a Biblical studies scholar. It is therefore not difficult to imagine an aspiring Russian Studies scholar, for example, who earnestly desires to advance the kingdom through her discipline to be sorely disappointed by this overly-narrow focus of the book.
This later deficiency is more grave than the first because, contra the Protestant doctrine introduced by Luther that for a Christian, there is no such thing as a “secular vocation,” Kostenberger seems to give off the impression that Biblical scholars form a special elite of Christian scholars. This notion is akin to taking the Roman Catholic privileged view of the clergy against which the Reformers argued and applying that discriminatory hierarchy to the academic disciplines. Even I, as a student at Yale Divinity School studying Philosophical Theology (a field which is not quite so different from the Biblical Studies in which Kostenberger specializes), felt surprisingly inadequately addressed by this book because its focus was so narrow.
This error could be avoided if Kostenberger had expanded upon his correct notion that the Christian scholarly task is grounded in the nature of God, and if he also saw that task as fulfilling the dominion mandate of the first chapter of Genesis. If it is true that every aspect of human life that is not explicitly sinful somehow conveys the glory of the Lord, then it therefore follows that the scholar or practitioner of literally any other discipline can and must proclaim that glory through research into that discipline.
Furthermore, if it is the role of the Christian to fulfill his role as the image of God in creating, organizing, and improving upon the world at large, and if it is a joyfully human act to labor diligently to uncover truth about the created order, that task applies to every possible discipline and cannot be limited merely to Biblical studies. As it stands, Kostenberger’s book bills itself as attempting a task it does not fulfill.