The Virtue of Courage in Köstenberger’s Book Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue

Köstenberger opens his book addressing young, Christian scholars entering the world of academia. Distraught over the bifurcation of scholarship from faith, he argues that the two can be united successfully by the Christian scholar. The Christian scholar, according to Köstenberger, should be both academically rigorous and committed to his Christian faith. Both objectives can be achieved through excellence. Excellence is a compilation of many different virtues, founded on the very character of God. And since God calls Christians to model his character, the Christian scholar must model these virtues in his academic work. One of these virtues is courage. In the academic world today, the scholar must pursue courage, drawing from the strength which God provides.

The Emphasis of Courage

Köstenberger emphasizes the need for courage throughout his chapter. While the scholar’s work does not require the same type of courage that one would need in the military or in the police force, it still takes a tremendous amount of courage to be a Christian scholar in secular academia. Often the temptation arises to choose topics which are non-confrontational in order to get a degree. Or to choose a topic that will not offend a publisher.

Köstenberger illustrated his own struggle with this pressure, describing the academic climate when he wrote his dissertation. While he was studying for his doctorate, academia was persuaded that the gospel of John was written by a Johannine community and not John himself. Köstenberger, however, did not believe that the evidence necessitated a community, but he held that John was the author of his gospel. And so, he wrote his dissertation accordingly, having the courage to stand against current academic trends.

He then develops a brief biblical theology of courage, focusing primarily on the life of Joshua. When Joshua was about to enter the promised land, God told him to be courageous and follow the Law. Only when he obeyed would he have success. Köstenberger concludes with three observations:

(1) Courage is based on the presence of God whom God’s people can trust because of his actions on their behalf in the past and his promises of future action. (2) Courage is tied to obedience, because without obedience and faithfulness there can be no confidence that God will act favorably. (3) Courage is necessary to fulfill a particular mission or call from God.

With these three observations in mind, he then continues through the rest of Scripture developing the theme. In the New Testament, obedience is connected to the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world. And believers can proclaim the Gospel because God is nearby providing them courage to obey.

In his next major section, Köstenberger applies the Biblical theology to the life of the scholar. He focuses on how it takes courage for the scholar to please God, and not merely the publisher or professor. This Godward focus, then, would inevitably cause the scholar to oppose some dogmas of academia, especially in the integration of faith with scholarship. Academia holds faith in contempt, asserting that a confessional scholar cannot do objective scholarship. And so, Köstenberger encourages his readers to pursue excellent academic scholarship to over come the bias of academia. In his final exhortation, he reminds the reader that scholarship, just like the rest of the Christian life, is spiritual warfare. And in his words, “this takes courage.”

Excellent Points on Courage

Particularly helpful is his encouragement for the Christian scholar who enters the antagonistic world of Biblical scholarship. All the leading academic institutions, Harvard, Yale, etc., reject all supernatural events, concluding contrary to what the Scriptures claim. And so, these institutions put pressure on the Christian scholar to conform. As Köstenberger puts it, “pressures abound to go with the flow of scholarly consensus, and the academy often marginalizes those who buck the system.”

This pressure enters even in Christian seminaries, which take a high view of Scripture. While the pressure may not come from the professors, the student will inevitably read and analyze the works of critical scholarship because he must be thorough in his research. While he might not be convinced of the critical position because of one work, continued exposure may weaken his resolve to hold a high view of Scripture. And after countless interactions with critical scholars, the student may not necessarily give in to their position, but he may not publish on the topic either.

This is where courage must come in. It will never be easy to stand up against the “assured results of modern scholarship,” but he must stand in order to maintain his calling from God. God has called certain men to maintain the faith through scholarship. And it will clash with unbelieving scholarship quiet often. In this fight, however, the Christian scholar is not alone, as Köstenberger points out, “We, as evangelical scholars, have a strong reservoir from which to draw courage. We can have confidence in God’s favorable presence with us to help and sustain us on a daily basis.” It is not sheer force of will or intellectual brilliance that will give the scholar courage, but courage comes through the presence of the Almighty God which lives in him.

One Small Critique

The one area in this chapter which could use some improvement is Köstenberger’s example of how Israel drew on God’s courage to fight Benjamin. He states: “In Judges 20:22, the people of Israel took courage in their fight against Benjamin, even in the face of incredible losses, because of God’s command (Judg. 20:18, 23, 27–28).”

While Israel did indeed need courage to fight the Benjamites, it does lack the clear moral context to which the Christian scholar can aspire. As many have observed, Judges traces the moral decline of the nation of Israel as they turn from God. This decline does not always follow a chronological emphasis, but rather a theological one. Case in point, this event recorded here happened soon after the entrance of Israel into the promise land, because the text says that Phineas was still the high priest (Judg. 10:27-28). But, this account appears at the end of the book of Judges and so it is out of chronological order. Thus, the author must have had a theological purpose in mind.

In the overall structure of Judges two themes come out. First, Israel was caught in an endless cycle of sin, judgment, repentance and restoration. And Second, during those days, there was no king in Israel. And as the author develops these themes, he shows the nation getting worse and worse. So, with this example appearing near the end of the book, the author is showing how utterly wicked the nation had become. So, while they did require courage, it is not necessarily an example for believers to follow.

Conclusion and Personal Takeaway

The biggest takeaway from the chapter was on the need to take courage from God to do the work which He has called Christian scholars to do. Often times, the task can be daunting. But as the Lord commanded Joshua to take courage to conquer Canaan (a task more formidable than scholarship), so to the Christian scholar can obey his call and campaign for the cause of Christ in academic circles. Whether the scholar is called to pastoring, writing, podcasting, or what have you, he can draw on courage in order to develop his materials to the best of his ability.

Courage, however, does not stand by itself. For, by itself, courage often ends up in brash ignorance or mean-spirited belligerence. Courage must be inseparably tied to the other virtues listed in the book. And as God grows the scholar in all of these virtues, the scholar can pursue more excellent academic work for the glory of God.

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