The Pursuit of Excellence
“True greatness should never go unrecognized,” or so says Audi’s recent luxury sedan ad campaign. Indeed, the truly great or excellent should never go unrecognized. It should be sought after and recognized for its worth. Yet the question remains, “In our pursuit of excellence, what is truly excellent?”
In this essay I will explore the topic of excellence: What do we find concerning excellence in the natural world? And what does God say concerning the issue? Finally, how should our lives change in light of what we find?
Excellence Recognized in General Revelation
First, the standards for excellence may be found through the astute observation of the world around us. The apostle Paul states: “What may be known of God is manifest in [man], for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20, italics mine). These verses make clear that God reveals Himself in creation. And because God is incomparably excellent (Ps. 8:1), His excellence can be recognized through His creation—by Christians and non-Christians alike.
The Greeks caught sight of this in their pursuit of aretē. Aretē denoted an ideal so high that it was beyond human imagination—even divine. It was this inspirational concept upon which the Greeks built their philosophy, art, and culture. By it, they aspired to more excellent ways, and by it they forsook that which was petty and insignificant. Further, their concept of the excellent ideal was ever-increasing, always producing a more excellent goal beyond what had previously been achieved. This is clearly evidenced by the three Architectural Orders:
The Greeks developed three Architectural Orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Each order comprises a set of architectural elements and proportions. The most telling details for identification of the orders are the three types of capitals used at the tops of columns. Doric, which came first, is simple, geometric, and sturdy; Ionic is taller and more dynamic than Doric; Corinthian is complex and organic .
Though the Greeks sought after something greater with each achievement, still they had no ultimate universal principle from which to derive their concept of excellence or consistently apply to their particular situations . Plato, a Greek Himself, made the same observation. He believed the principles of Greek religion were inadequate in the pursuit of a universal principle. He addressed this in his dialogue, Euthyphro: “Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious” . In this passage, he is requiring the young man Euthyphro to provide the universal principle for piety. Ultimately, Euthyphro was unable to provide any such principle.
Despite the Greek’s absence of universal principles, their pursuit of aretē kept them from “relinquishing [their] individuality to group goals, and basing all values, norms, and status on present-day tastes and fads” . Still, Plato illustrated that this absence would make it impossible to consistently judge particular situations. Hence, while man is capable of discerning some, vague truths in nature, in part because of sin’s curse, he is incapable of reaching the universal principals behind them without God’s word.
Excellence Realized in Special Revelation
Although vague truths may be gleaned from nature, as the Greeks illustrate, we cannot fully realize them without God’s Word. The Bible provides this set of universal principles, including the principle of excellence. Such notions are found ultimately (1) in the one, true God; and (2) as the children of God, He asks that we seek after them.
First, God Himself embodies excellence, and His entire character is the very basis of it. Or as the Psalmist wrote, “O, LORD, our Lord, how excellent is Your name in all the earth” (Ps 8:1). His excellence is so incredible that it permeates all of creation. God proclaims repeatedly in His word that He is the best—the most excellent in all ways: “I am the First and I am the Last / Besides Me there is no God / And who can proclaim as I do” (Is. 44:6, 7); and again, “Is there a God besides Me / Indeed there is no other Rock / I know not one” (Is. 44:8). Andreas J. Köstenberger comments:
Excellence starts and ends with God 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…Humans, in their character and dealings with one another, may be marked by holiness, justice, love, mercy, and goodness to varying degrees, but God alone excels in all of these and does so to a perfect degree. Complete excellence characterizes everything God is and does” .
Indeed, God far exceeds any human understanding of excellence.
Second, God asks that we as Christians pursue excellence in all things. Or as Christ stated: “Therefore you shall be perfect just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). See also Philippians 4:8 (quoted below); Romans 13:11-14; Galatians 5:16-26; and the entire book of Proverbs. Such passages serve as a canon for desirability and guide for worthiness. They are our personal divining rods, demanding that we set God’s principles as our own. Yet let us remember that we cannot do this solely under our own power. It is only in Christ and His strength that we are able to properly pursue excellence.
Applying Universal Principles to the Particular Examples
When we become followers of Christ, we are to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s], that [we] may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). The Holy Spirit begins to change our desires and our ambitions to conform us to Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29). In addition, we are to allow Him to change us daily and to guide us in our decisions. He constantly renews our minds, while continually making His will our will. Still, the question remains, “How am I to apply this? What are some specific areas in life in which to pursue excellence?”
Consider the principles in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” These principles should act as a filter for all of life. When our choices are pressed through them, the foul and polluted options will be left behind, while the pure options come through unscathed.
For example, when I was a teenager, my favorite past time was listening to music, and my favorite band was Led Zeppelin. However, when I began to grasp the principles set forth in Philippians 4:8, it changed my perspective of excellence. Led Zeppelin’s music did not meet the requirements of nobility, right, morally pure, or what was true. It actually promoted irresponsibility, improper behavior, immoral sexuality, and a wrong-headed understanding of life. So I began to search for music that did meet these standards. I found that folk and artistic music usually held up under inspection, and even when it fell short, it was much preferable to pop music or rock-and-roll. Mark Stripling succinctly addresses this same concept:
We must ask whether the music we are listening to is encouraging our growth or hindering it. If it encourages growth, continue to listen to it; if it hinders growth, stop listening to it. God created music for man to enjoy and some music, although it is not sacred, still glorifies God because of its beauty. Classical music would be part of this area .
While this is only an example of how these principles can be applied to a particular situation, they are applicable to the entire spectrum of particular situations, not just music or entertainment. These principles restructure our daily lives on a fundamental level.
Man has often tried to base his principles solely on his own observations. This has always ended in dissatisfaction and frustration, because of our inability to realize the whole truth without special revelation. The Greeks are an excellent example of this. But, when God is allowed to provide our principles, our particular choices become clear. In His wisdom, He did not give us a by-item list of excellent things. Rather, He gave us the principles by which to judge the particulars. When we allow Him to be the judge of excellence, we are left only to apply His judgment. As Köstenberger states, “Since excellence, then, is an all-encompassing attribute of God, and since we are exhorted in Scripture to imitate God, having been made in his likeness, excellence should mark our lives as his children, extending to both who we are (our character and our relationships) and what we do (our work or vocation)” . In our pursuit of excellence, may we in Christ seek excellence in our everyday lives.
 Patrick Frank, Prebles’ Artforms: An Introduction to the Visual Arts (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2009), 248.
 Consider this as an example of a “universal principle” being applied to “particular situations” in our own day: When a person drives an automobile in America, he/she employs a set of guiding, universal principles at all traffic lights: Stop at red, go at green, and use caution at yellow. This overarching principle is much preferable to giving a by-intersection list of places to stop, or at what time (For example, at the intersection of Main St. and Maple Lane you must stop during the periods of 10:00-10:01 am, 10:03-10:04 am, 10:06-10:07 am, et cetera).
 Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Benjamin Jowett (trans.) (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 14.
 Jon Johnston, Christian Excellence: Alternative to Success (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1985), 39.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2011), 34, 35.
 Mark Stripling, Contact, “The BEAT Goes On” (Nov. 1992), 12.
 Köstenberger, 38.