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Thomas H. Olbricht: In Memory of a Life Well Lived

Volume 1 | June 6, 2022

Ken L. Berry, Bible League International

Mark Hamilton, Abilene Christian University

Samjung Kang-Hamilton, Abilene Christian University

Theme: In Memoriam

During the 2021 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, a group of scholars presented their reflections on the life and work of Thomas H. Olbricht, the namesake of the conference, who had died a few months earlier. Speaking for many at the conference and around the world, these scholars sought to find words adequate to the task of commemorating a towering figure in the scholarship of Churches of Christ and far beyond. The essays presented in this inaugural issue of Paradoxum record the thoughts of many of those scholars, mostly in the form in which they were presented. A very extended treatment of Tom’s legacy appears in Carl Holladay’s outstanding article prefacing a major collection of Tom’s articles on the rhetoric of the New Testament, published in 2021 by the Society of Biblical Literature.1 Moreover, a bibliography of his published works appears in the final 2021 number of Restoration Quarterly.2 Other participants have presented their reflections in other venues. Those presented here, however, reflect the deep admiration and affection that all contributors felt for Tom over many years.

Their work was divided into two interlocking sessions, both chaired by Ken Berry. The program described the sessions as follows:

Session 1: Thomas H. Olbricht as Biblical Scholar

This session explores the legacy of Thomas H. Olbricht as a scholar of the Bible, including his groundbreaking work on the rhetoric of the New Testament and his insightful and influential treatments of Old Testament theology for the contemporary church. Olbricht’s published scholarship concentrated on the rhetorical dimensions of biblical texts, understood against the backdrop of both ancient and modern rhetorical theorists. His work extended beyond that core to include the history of biblical scholarship and the abiding theological relevance of both Old and New Testaments.


John Fitzgerald, University of Notre Dame

Kindalee De Long, Pepperdine University

Ron Cox, Pepperdine University

Mark W. Hamilton, Abilene Christian University

Session 2: Thomas H. Olbricht as Theologian and Historian for the Church’s Sake

This session explores the work of Thomas H. Olbricht as a biblical theologian, church leader, and historian of the Restoration Movement. Olbricht spent decades attempting to situate the development of the Restoration Movement in a succession of historical settings, scaled from the local to the international. This work served more than an academic interest for him, however. It was part of an attempt to make sense of, and reckon with, his own life as a member of this movement and to help others do the same.


Kathy Pulley, Missouri State University

Carl Holladay, Emory University

Douglas A. Foster, Abilene Christian University

As the reader of these essays will quickly ascertain, the contributors addressed different aspects of Tom’s multivariate scholarship, including his pioneering work on the rhetoric of New Testament texts, his church-oriented theologies of the Old and New Testaments, and his recovery of innumerable details of the ongoing life of the members and churches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, especially in North America. In all these areas of research and writing, Tom could move from the fine detail to the appropriate generalization with aplomb and skill, and as such he serves as a model for how scholarship in service of the church may be done.

Great Songs of the Church. Centennial Celebration Edition 1921-2021. Christian Scholars' Conference. June 9-11, 2021. Lipscomb University. Nashville, Tennessee.

In our era of ever finer specialization, the thoughtful and informed generalist seems almost to be a figure from another, perhaps mythical era. That Tom could perform intelligently in several different disciplines testifies to both his mindful self-discipline and, perhaps even more importantly, his creative curiosity. He was not a dilettante. Quite the opposite. He managed to make important and lasting contributions to several areas of research, keeping together fields that in most of our hands have grown far apart.

In these papers, two other underlying themes emerge. One is Tom’s fascination with story, whether of the Bible or the innumerable major and minor figures of his own religious heritage. For him, the story of humanity intertwined with the story of God in a way that bespoke his own love for both.

A second theme is his passion for an enlightened practice of restorationism. This attitude showed up not just in his preference for biblical to systematic theology and his recurring efforts to retrieve and explain his own faith community and its past. It also came to the fore in a more primal way, the sense that Christian faith is a process—a story with a plot progression—that requires of those who embrace it both open-mindedness and generosity toward others. The man who wrote several autobiographies could never believe that he had arrived at a final explanation of himself or of others. The effort to understand and live on the basis of understanding requires a lifelong effort. Tom possessed the rare courage to live in the provisional world of ever-new discovery, and not just to talk about it.

Not all of the contributors to this collection took classes from Tom or worked with him at Abilene Christian University or Pepperdine University. But all were his students and his colleagues, for the life of the teacher does not easily fit into the bureaucratically defined walls of the modern university. It comes from the soul. It certainly did in Tom’s case. That is why we remain in his debt, now and always. And that is why we offer these reflections to a wider world.

  1. Carl R. Holladay, “Thomas H. Olbricht (1929–2020): A Memorial Essay,” in Rhetoric and Scripture: Collected Essays of Thomas H. Olbricht, ed. Lauri Thurén (Atlanta: SBL, 2021), xv–xxxvi.
  2. Carl R. Holladay, “Thomas H. Olbricht Bibliography: Writings and Publications,” Restoration Quarterly 63/4 (2021): 235–46.
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About Ken L. Berry

Ken L. Berry is Senior Translation Consultant with Bible League International, based in its Hurst, Texas office. Since 1991 he has been involved in over 30 Bible translation projects. He studied at ACU while Tom Olbricht was professor and dean, then at Yale, and was a visiting professor at Pepperdine while Tom Olbricht was Religion Division Chair. His review of Rhetoric and Scripture: Collected Essays of Thomas H. Olbricht will appear in Restoration Quarterly.

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About Mark Hamilton

Mark Hamilton is the Robert and Kay Onstead Professor of Biblical Studies in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author or editor of eleven books, including most recently Jesus, King of Strangers (Eerdmans 2019) and In the Shadow of Empire: Israel and Judah in the Long Sixth Century BCE (edited with Pamela Barmash, SBL 2021). He is currently writing a commentary on Genesis and essays on the impact of forced migration on prophetic and narrative texts from ancient Israel. Never officially a student of Tom Olbricht’s, Mark nevertheless has learned from Tom in countless ways over the past three decades.

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About Samjung Kang-Hamilton

Samjung Kang-Hamilton teaches religious education at Abilene Christian University. She is the book review editor for Restoration Quarterly. Her research, speaking, and writing focus on the partnership between churches and families in the spiritual formation of children, youth, and adults, as well as on cross-cultural ministry, women’s ministry, and global ministry. She was the only Asian female student in Tom Olbricht’s last class taught at ACU. Her work is published in many articles.

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