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I am going to start with a controversial claim. I believe the famous phrase, “faith seeking understanding” is the wrong phrase for Christian academics to use to describe Christian education. Instead, a more biblically faithful phrase should be faith seeking excellence (and then understanding). Allow me to explain why.

Some time ago David Smith asked me why I often use the word “excellence” in my work (e.g., my recent books, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education and Identity in Action: Christian Excellence in All of Life). He admitted that he was suspicious of certain Christian uses of the term. As I later pondered his comment, I realized I had some biblical and theological beliefs behind my choice that I needed to unpack for a wider audience.

The basis for my view comes from the New Testament. In 2 Peter 1:3-7 (RSV), in which we are told:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence [aretḗ], by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue [aretḗ], and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

In the NIV version, the English translation of aretḗ in both cases is “goodness.” Thus, one can see that aretḗ can be and is translated in three interchangeable ways: excellence (especially moral), virtue, and goodness, although I would argue that “excellence” is the better translation. Put simply, Christians are biblically called to be excellent because God is excellent, and we are to imitate God and be partakers of his divine nature by acquiring excellence. That is why the well-known verse, Philippians 4:8, advises Christians to think on aretḗ [excellence].

What is noteworthy about the ordering of terms in the 2 Peter passage, in contrast to the famous saying, “faith seeking understanding,” is that there is a recognition that an appreciation of moral excellence must first be acquired before one pursues knowledge. The reason, I contend, is straightforward. Moral excellence supplies the telos or end for which knowledge should be used.

This point applies especially to higher education. We do not want simply to teach students health; we want to teach them to be excellent stewards of their bodies. We do not simply want to teach them political science; we want to teach them to be good citizens.  We do not simply want to teach them personal finance; we want to teach them to be wise stewards of money. We do not simply want to teach them psychology or sociology, we want them to be excellent neighbors, friends, and family members. We should focus first on the excellence (aretḗ) we want them to acquire and then the knowledge for obtaining that excellence.

Indeed, this same Greek word, aretḗ, is the word that Aristotle used for excellence in his Nicomachean Ethics. Wikipedia actually provides a helpful understanding here: “Arete (Ancient Greek: ἀρετή, romanized: aretḗ) is a concept in ancient Greek thought that, in its most basic sense, refers to ‘excellence’ of any kind—especially a person or thing’s ‘full realization of potential or inherent function.’ The term may also refer to excellence in ‘moral virtue.’” As Aristotle helpfully noted in the Nicomachean Ethics, you pursue excellence for its own sake. You do not need to supply additional rationales for it.

Our problem in higher education today is that we focus on teaching particular subjects or batches of knowledge without first establishing the necessary prior focus on excellence. That’s why, from a Christian perspective, most approaches to general education should be considered problematic. Simply teaching Introduction to Psychology, Introduction to Sociology, Introduction to Biology, etc. does nothing to communicate to students the aretḗ, or excellence, they should pursue. Nothing in those titles indicates they involve calling students to excellence.

As my previous posts on students’ views of general education note, since students have no idea about the excellence to which a particular general education class aims, they usually find them useless and boring. For Christians, any batch of knowledge, as 2 Peter 1 suggests, must first be framed and analyzed through faith-informed visions of excellence.

That is why I dislike many of the ways that Christians talk about the liberal arts. They believe a batch of particular curricular subjects they call the liberal arts (the list of which has changed throughout history) has the magical power to help one achieve specific forms of excellence. In contrast, I argue for teaching more explicit forms of identity excellence instead of general education courses that offer to expose students to a batch of knowledge or perhaps provide a vaguely-defined competence (e.g., communication skills, critical thinking).

Thus, we should educate students to be excellent image bearers of God; Christians; friends; family members; citizens; men and women; stewards of the earth, our bodies, and culture; etc. In both general education and the co-curricular domain, we need to help students supplement their faith with aretḗ/excellence. I find it interesting that “Daniel became distinguished above all the other presidents and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him” (Daniel 6:3). We should distinguish ourselves from secular education and secular thinkers by the same spirit of excellence.

So, what might this look like in one of your courses? I encourage you to think about and explain to your students the specific excellence your courses are helping them pursue. Of course, in majors, we often implicitly imply that we are helping students obtain professional excellence in a professional field, but it is often not framed in that way. In contrast, I would be specific about how a specific class will help them be excellent historians, biologist, engineers, social workers, etc. For example, I think conceiving of our job as educating graduate students to be excellent higher education administrators and not simply providing them with a collection of basic knowledge and skills that administrators need.

Overall, if you do not enter your classroom, knowing, articulating, loving, and demonstrating the excellence to which you are directing students, your students will merely see your class as a content dump of random information and tell their friends, “I don’t know how I’ll be using this stuff.” Let’s make sure they know that we want them to acquire excellence in all facets of their lives because God has called us to image, partake of, and represent his excellence. We need to engage in faith-seeking excellence (and then understanding).

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.


  • David Paschane says:

    Dr. Glanzer: Your post makes points that I think are fundamental to education, and I hope that leaders in academia hear them. Thank you.

    • You may have already shared these points in your books or other blogs, so forgive me if I am repeating them. Your post introduces what is the ideal way to define and seek excellence, in ourselves and in cooperation with others, which is to submit our plans to God’s leading and direction–it is a matter of our hearts, first and foremost. Meanwhile, God gives us the freedom to explore and pursue our interests and to become faithful stewards of our gifts, opportunities, and future capacity, thus we seek developmental cooperation from academia and other sources. With these points in mind, let me share three goals that I think leads to excellence through academic programing.

      Speaking to the student:

      First, the goal after graduation is to become much more employable, not simply employed. This means that you are prepared to explore and venture into the diverse possibilities of paid and volunteer work, planned or hoc work, and in response to God’s leading. In practice, employability requires an awareness of the phenomenal breadth of opportunities in yourself and the world, and accepting that you are not yet prepared for them, but you are willing to learn technical and interpersonal skills to navigate them with others.

      Second, the goal during your education is become as intelligent and capable as you can with the time and money you have invested in academia–it is a valuable gift. In practical terms, this means that once graduated, you can explain and demonstrate how you can be valuable to specific situations. You have the ability apply logic, analytics, experimentation, and communication to challenging work and people. More so, you bring virtue to the team–they can rely on you to be honest, hardworking, and honorable.

      Third, the goal is to be ready for a lifelong commitment to responsible service, to your family, church, and community. Such a commitment requires skills in how you can integrate and apply knowledge, so you can learn and lead, as needed. The commitment also requires God-shaped humility and courage, where you are ready to face difficult and unpleasant situations, care for your teammates, be honest about the intentions and actions at every scale, and serve others without recognition or rewards.

      Note: While I am academic-at-large, guiding the translation of applied research and program evaluations to scalable policies, I often consider the development of the emerging workforce–the graduates–from the field to federal agendas–and with consideration of where they are in their relationship with God. In my opinion, the Christian Church needs a few Christian leaders to concentrate on the strategic pathways for developing and supporting the Christian workforce, and such pathways can inform individual students and their parents. What is unique to the Christian workforce is that it is a committed to God-defined excellence in all work, workplaces, and communities, including congregation-enabled service and leadership. While there are various examples of strategic work by domains and scope of interest (e.g., Council for Christian Colleges & Universities; Southern Baptist Convention), the Christian workforce is not the central topic, thus there is no integrated thinking brought to the complexity of the matter, or brought back to the various interests. Let’s start with a workshop next summer….God willing.

      • pglanzer says:

        I think you provide some helpful directions toward excellence. I think you’re right that we often have spheres where excellence is encouraged within what I call a particular identity (e.g., what it means to be excellent in business or a particular profession), but what makes Christian institutions unique is their interest in integrated and wholistic excellence in all the spheres.

  • Dr. Glanzer (Perry): Thank you for this important exploration about the purposes of Christian higher education. Your exegesis of aretḗ and how it would/could be understood in the Greek culture of the time is helpful. Rightly, you create a larger mission for teaching and learning within any field of arts, sciences, or application. Through a focus on excellence, we also should teach our students that it includes the address of cultural and planetary systems. Love of God and neighbor requires a telos that is both individual and systemic. I think you intend to include both personal and systemic purposes for Christian higher education. Yet I write to elevate the importance of educating Christians to address structures such as those of business, education, government, health care, information technology, international policy, social services, and environmental sustainability. The purpose of Christian higher education should have this dual focus on the development of personal excellence and the renewal of systemic excellence.

    • pglanzer says:

      Thanks! I agree completely. I appreciate your gentle reminder that my language may come across as too individualistic in this essay. In the future, I will try to make sure my wording communicates that we should be concerned with both individual and corporate excellence (e.g. what does it mean to build an excellent academic professional organization, business, church, non-profit, government, etc.).

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    The importance of this topic is reflected in the number of comments here, and we should not be surprised. How much is it lacking at the moment. I have not considered it sufficiently myself as a faculty member.

    I agree that “arete” is best described as moral excellence, a more helpful term than the vague “virtue”. I would also agree that, as the list in 2 Peter 1 implies, moral excellence is a means to an end. I think we as educators in Christian universities, in our vision statements, teaching, research, and other endeavors on campus, need to specify that end for their students: to become, as Peter states, partakers of the divine nature. To this end, as Peter stated, they need to be challenged apply “all diligence” in the process of their spiritual formation to that end. It is a process, and one that requires hard work, and one that is to be modeled by their older classmates, professors, deans, chaplains, and members of the executive leadership team. And they need to be reminded of the reward, described in verse 8, as they grow in Christlike character, that “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    This really is what ought to define us as Christian educators/institutions: that we challenge, and nurture our students, to engage in the process of their spiritual formation, so that, when they graduate, they will be far better prepared to “bear fruit in every good work” in their homes, workplaces, churches, and communities.

  • Joseph 'Rocky' F Wallace says:

    Yes, agree. *We live in a culture that too often “mentors” young people to make post-secondary and vocational decisions based on future income–instead of “calling”.

    Christian institutions of higher learning are set apart in our potential to focus on much more than “earn the degree and then chase self-focused dreams”…

    • Gordon Moulden says:

      Right. I do believe “spiritual formation” is a worthy goal, as a stepping stone into a vocation. Daniel’s skills, training and character allowed him to serve pagan kings in a powerful way.

  • Mark T. Witwer says:

    Thank you for another thought-provoking blog, Perry.

    I am speaking from the context in which I spent most of my teaching career: Christian secondary schools. However, I think there is a significant overlap between the ways educators in secondary and higher education seek to bring their Christian identity into conversation with their teaching.

    Placing excellence before understanding (without minimizing the importance of the latter) is a helpful rhetorical move. It encourages a Christian educator to ask critically important questions: Why does my institution exist as a Christian school, not simply an excellent private school? Why am I teaching in such an institution? What do I want most for my students? What do I think God wants most for my students?

    It would be naive to imply that questions like these have one simple answer and Christian educators should all agree. God loves variety; by God’s grace, we bring different gifts and stories to our work. Still, after 40+ years in Christian education, I suspect that the primary driver of Christ-animated learning is how we answer “why” questions like these.