We just published Andreas Köstenberger's new book on the pursuit of excellence in Christian scholarship and in all aspects of the Christian life called Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Crossway, 2011). You can read the table of contents, introduction, and first chapter online for free, or read this Q&A hosted by Justin Taylor:
I’m grateful he was willing to answer a few questions:
You start the book with your personal story and say this is the most personal book you wrote. What is it that makes the topic of excellence such an intensely personal one for you?
My call to excellence came at my conversion when I was gripped by a realization of the utter excellence of God. I was impressed by the fact that because God is excellent in every way, everything I do for him ought to be characterized by excellence. This, to me, is what it means to bring glory to God—to do everything I do for him with excellence.
In your book, you say that many Christians are “addicted to mediocrity.” Why do you think that is and what is your message to those Christians in your book on excellence?
Yes, sadly, I have found that while many in the evangelical community pay lip service to excellence, far fewer have a demonstrated track record of excellence. Frank Schaffer wrote about evangelicals’ “addiction to mediocrity” years ago. While I’m sure there are many causes, one key one, I believe, is the notion of cheap grace. People don’t understand grace. The other day, I taught on Romans 6, and once again was impressed by the fact that Paul says that while we were once slaves to sin, we now have become slaves to God! In other words, as recipients of God’s grace we don’t simply move from a state of bondage to a state of freedom where there are no more constraints whatsoever. Rather, as committed Christian disciples, we are now expected to serve God with distinction—not because we have to, but because we want to. God is more than worthy of us giving him everything we’ve got, rather than just presuming on his grace and being satisfied with mediocrity.
So, my message in the book to my fellow believers is simply this: God is a God of excellence, and if you are a Christian, he has called you to pursue excellence in everything you do, whether in the personal, moral, or vocational arena.
In your book, you seem to be taking a somewhat critical approach toward the customary emphasis in Christian circles on spiritual disciplines. Why is that?
As someone who grew up Roman Catholic, I have found that we as evangelicals have at times imported an ethos that owes more to medieval monasticism than to biblical spirituality. When we look at the life of Jesus, we don’t find someone who practiced a monastic-type lifestyle at all. Jesus was grounded in a close relationship with God but he was also actively immersed in vibrant ministry in community with his followers. For this reason I propose in chapter 4 of my book on Excellence that spirituality must not become an end in itself; it must be vitally connected to the gospel. A biblical understanding of spirituality must be centered in the work of the Holy Spirit, not self-effort, no matter how sincere or noble one’s motivation might be.
There are a lot of secular books on excellence. How does a Christian approach to excellence differ from secular ones?
“Excellence” has been a buzzword in the business community for many years. I remember reading In Search for Excellence by Peters and Waterman a couple decades ago. Usually, the approach taken in secular books on excellence is that researchers identify traits of greatness in companies or individuals and then study what makes these individuals or companies great. This is then held up as an example for others to emulate. Another popular approach is simply to assemble quotes of famous people and to produce an anthology on the topic of excellence. One such book is Excellence: Inspiration for Achieving Your Personal Best, edited by J. Pincott. There is nothing particularly wrong with such efforts, but I believe they remain very much on the surface when it comes to understanding what true excellence is really all about. By contrast, a Christian approach to excellence, as I argue in my book, must start with the excellence of God. On this theological foundation, we must understand our own call to excellence, which entails the pursuit of virtues such as diligence, courage, passion, restraint, integrity, humility, interdependence, and love.
How can we as Christians pursue vocational, relational, and moral excellence?
In the book, I make a case for the need to pursue excellence not merely in the vocational realm but also in one’s personal life and moral sphere. Too often we see people in public life—including Christians—succeed professionally but succumb to personal or moral failure. The key passage in Scripture that I use in my book as a blueprint for pursuing Christian virtue is 2 Peter 1:3-11, which speaks of God calling us to his own glory and excellence and urges believers to make every effort to supplement their faith with virtue. I find this striking—as Christians, we are called to supplement our faith by pursuing a series of virtues! How can we as Christians pursue such virtues? To find out, you’ve got to read the book! After discussing the excellence of God, our call to pursue excellence, and chapters on holiness and spirituality, I devote 13 chapters to individual virtues that believers are called to cultivate, with special emphasis on the pursuit of scholarly virtues. God’s call to excellence is both a daunting and an exhilarating call. Together, let’s pursue personal, moral, and vocational excellence for the glory of God.