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Pepperdine University Remembers the Life and Legacy of Thomas H. Olbricht

August 21, 2020  | 3 min read

Pepperdine University remembers the life and legacy of Thomas H. Olbricht, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion, renowned scholar and author, and influential Churches of Christ leader, who passed away on August 21, 2020. He was 90.

“Tom Olbricht was truly a living legend. He was a prolific scholar, fully conversant in several disciplines, and an engaging classroom teacher. Likely blessed with an almost photographic memory, he not only remembered his students but also details about their lives and families," shared Rick R. Marrs, whom Olbricht hired as provost of Pepperdine University and who later succeeded him as chair of the Seaver College Religion and Philosophy Division. "For me, he was the quintessential role model, manifesting daily through his words and actions what it meant to be a Christian scholar and devoted follower of Christ. He impacted my life and the lives of countless others in countless ways. While I mourn the loss of this 'giant in the faith,' I am forever thankful that the Lord blessed us with the gift of this man of God.”

At Pepperdine Olbricht served as chair of the Seaver College Religion Division for 10 years, from fall 1986 to summer 1996, and was named Distinguished Professor of Religion in 1994. For several years, he led the closing prayer of the annual Harbor: The Pepperdine Bible Lectures prayer at the University’s Malibu campus. His first-ever lecture at the event was so compelling that he was approached by Jerry Rushford, director of the Pepperdine Churches of Christ Heritage Center, then the director of the Pepperdine Office of Church Relations, about becoming the chair of the Religion and Philosophy Division at Seaver College. In 2011 he received an honorary doctorate from Pepperdine University. 

“Tom is a towering figure in Christian higher education, and the mark he left on Pepperdine is permanent," said Jim Gash (JD ’93), president and chief executive officer of Pepperdine University. 

In his 2012 autobiography, Reflections On My Life in the Kingdom and the Academy, Olbricht expressed his desire to serve in the realm of higher education specifically to teach biblical texts. In chapter 16, “Pepperdine and the Pacific Rim,” Olbricht explained how his passion for education led to the creation of a more robust master’s degree in the field of religion, and, to ease the potential burden of travel on graduate students, courses were offered throughout California, as well as in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, and Missouri. He also revealed in the book that he felt welcomed and accepted at the University Church of Christ in Malibu, where he was appointed as an elder after three years of attendance.

"Tom was a preeminent scholar, unexcelled teacher, and dedicated churchman who shaped the course of Christian education and the faith and practice of Churches of Christ more than any other single person during the last hundred years," said W. David Baird, Dean Emeritus of Seaver College, Howard A. White Professor Emeritus of History, and Pepperdine historian, who served closely with Olbricht for several years as an elder of the University Church of Christ. 

In 1981 he became the founding director of the annual Christian Scholars' Conference, renamed the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars' Conference in 2013 in his honor, which creates and nurtures networks of scholarly dialogue and collaboration at Churches of Christ universities nationwide. 

"Tom was loyal to his roots. Born in the same little Missouri Ozarks town as my father, he was able to rise to the highest levels of scholarly attainment without feeling the need to disparage or repudiate his spiritual and cultural heritage," shared John Wilson, Dean Emeritus of Seaver College and Professor Emeritus of Religion, who hired Olbricht and later served alongside him for several years as an elder at the University Church of Christ. "He was granted a clear mind and memory far into his 80s, and he used them both. He was thinking new thoughts, learning, creating, and writing until the end. He did this as a true scholar, not for reputation, tenure, or promotion, but for the love of learning and a deep sense of responsibility to share what he had learned."  

Alongside a full-time career in higher education, Olbricht, who was recognized for his expertise in hermeneutics, served as a minister for numerous Churches of Christ congregations around the United States, including in Iowa, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas, and the Malibu Church of Christ.

“In any one category, Tom Olbricht's contribution and influence would be hard to overstate: rhetoric, theology and biblical studies, the history of the Restoration Movement, college administration, church leadership, and, of course, teaching—especially the several thousand ministry students who took his classes through the years. But that he accomplished so much in each of these areas and interwove them all in promotion of God's love is awe-inspiring,” shared Ronald R. Cox (MDiv '96), associate dean of international programs and professor of religion at Seaver College, who studied under Olbricht while earning his master of divinity degree at Pepperdine. “Like so many of his students and colleagues, there is no aspect of my life that has not been enriched by Tom's teaching, mentoring, encouraging, and caring. Tom taught me to read the Bible and to live in service to the church by focusing foremost on God's love. He and his wife, Dorothy, loved me and my family, and so many others with that same divine love.”