The Pursuit of Excellence and the Character of God

Yesterday I picked up a copy of Andreas Köstenberger’s new book, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue. I’m only in the earliest pages, so this is by no means a review (though you can almost certainly expect one), but you know a book’s got you hooked when you notice the first chapter’s subtitle:

“The character of God is the grounds of all human excellence.”

Read that again and let it really sink in. It’s going to start messing with you right about…

Now.

It’s tempting to read a line like that and say, “I should hope so” before quickly moving on, but think about it—how many of us actually have a working definition of excellence? On more than one occasion I’ve been reminded that, because of the gift and curse of my personality type, I have exceedingly high expectations. The bar for “excellent” is pretty darn high (and it’s one that I’m not sure I could even attain). But even then, it’s not even close to the standard that God has, which is Himself.

Köstenberger writes:

Systematic theologies generally do not list “excellence” as one of God’s attributes. For this reason it may appear at first glance that excellence is not all that important. This conclusion would be premature, however, for excellence can be viewed as an overarching divine attribute that encompasses all the others. Everything God is and does is marked by excellence. Wayne Grudem discusses God’s summary attributes of perfection, blessedness, beauty, and glory as “attributes that summarize his excellence.” Perfection indicates that “God lacks nothing in his excellence.” . . . On a basic level, we may think of excellence as the quality of standing out or towering above the rest, being eminent or superior (though not feeling superior, which is the essence of pride), and distinguishing oneself in some extraordinary or special way. As mentioned, God’s excellence is the ultimate point of reference for all true human excellence. Perhaps God’s attribute of perfection is most closely related to his excellence. God excels and is so far superior to all other beings in every way that perfection becomes the appropriate word to describe his excellence.

Imagine that this was our definition of excellence—not confusing “good enough,” “acceptable” or “okay” for excellence, but God Himself being the standard. How would that change how you work, how you parent, how you run your business or do ministry?

This is not an issue of “trying harder” or “doing better”—God gives us the grace by which we are capable of doing anything. My concern is that perhaps many of us have the bar set far too low because we’re using the wrong measure. Moms measure themselves against the celebrity moms, Christian bloggers measure themselves against better-known bloggers, preachers measure themselves against more eloquent or skilled preachers… But if God is the measure of excellence—if He is the standard and sets the standard at perfection—then this should drive us to a holy discontent in our work while driving us to see our greater need to rely on His grace to accomplish work that is truly excellent.

  • Tony Boes

    I’ve been thinking about picking this up since its on sale for Kindle, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to pull the trigger.

    Maybe it’s the result of living in a fast paced, performance driven culture, but every time I hear the word excellence, I feel like I’m drowning.  It’s hard to imagine swimming the English Channel when I’m struggling to tread water.

    Would a book like this help?

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      I’m hoping it will, Tony. What I’ve appreciated about it so far is that it seems to be pushing for a hard reset on our understanding of excellence, rather than redirecting our existing view of it. As soon as I’m done the book, I’ll be able to give a more thoughtful response.

  • http://philippians314.squarespace.com/ Kim Shay

    You are a bad man.  You have just brought to my attention a book that sounds very good!!  Looking forward to your review.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Sorry about that—I apparently cannot help but find interesting books!

  • http://sightregained.com Louis Tullo

    Amen and amen! There’s something so freeing in measuring excellence by God. As believers we realize we can never perfectly achieve that standard, in spite of our command and calling to be like him. We strive to excel as we allow ourselves to be conformed to the image of Christ, and simultaneously free ourselves from being obsessed with a human idol of the ideal.

  • Matt

    Thanks for this, Aaron.  I really appreciate your reflections and am going to look up the book now.

    There is definitely tension surrounding the word “excellence” in ministry.  I think the same applies to “hard work.”  While we undoubtedly posture ourselves as humble servants, dependant on God above all else, I also think we are called to give our absolute best… aka pursue excellence, even in ministry.  Colossians 3:23 has been really meaningful in my life in this respect, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

  • Bren Mclean

    Insightful post. Thanks.
    I’ve been using and sharing the phrase “pursue excellence, not perfection”, for years.
    I first heard it when I read Rory Noland’s book, ‘Heart of the Artist”. Still a classic today!