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Hearing God's Voice: My Life with Scripture…

Hearing God's Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ (edition 1996)

by Thomas H. Olbricht (Author)

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Title:Hearing God's Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ
Authors:Thomas H. Olbricht (Author)
Info:ACU Press (1996), 448 pages
Collections:Your library

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Hearing God's Voice: My Life with Scripture in the Churches of Christ by Thomas H. Olbricht



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The first and undoubtedly the most interesting feature about this book, a work that is a discussion of hermeneutics, is the autobiographical nature. Out of the ordinary, this approach presents the unique view of the writer as his hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures unfolds thru the years. Watching how the writer’s journey affects the process of interpretation makes the book seem more like a character study rather than the typical methodical approach to hermeneutics which catalogues those rules that govern the interpretation of any written work. In the early portion of his life Olbricht notes that both his father and mother play a significant role in what would be considered his preunderstanding; His father bringing a “pragmatic” side to his interpretation while his mother brought an influence that contributed to a “narrative” style of interpretation. While his father’s influence was more prominent early, the influence of his mother seemed to take a leading role later in his life. Of course, to minimize the contributing influence of Olbricht’s educational pursuits would be a mistake, as his concern with the language arts made him specifically sensitive to the nature and use of the words and the biblical narratives presented by his mother, while more scientific educational pursuits could have had the opposite effect and reinforced the pragmatic preunderstandings of his father.

A theme which recurs throughout the work in relation to hermeneutics is the need to interpret the scriptures in light of the mighty acts that God has done which, as Olbright maintains, are related to us with the use of narrative. Two important examples of this idea are recounted to help one understand. From the Old Testament the command of God to the Israelites from Exodus 22:21 (cf. Lev. 19:34; Deut. 10:19) to love the foreigners in their land for they were once foreigners. So the command stems from the “mighty act” that God did for his people. God expected his people to behave towards others as he had behaved toward them. From the New Testament a similar example/command dynamic occurs. At the Last Supper Jesus stoops to wash the feet of the apostles and then the command is given, “As I have done you should also do” (John 13:14). This same basic message, imitate Christ, is repeated several times in the NT writings which serves as the basis for one’s actions – the command is best understood as a response by the individual to the revelation of God in the Christ by the Holy Spirit. The primary hermeneutical thought then is that the narrative drives the commands.

By the end of the work Olbricht has made it clear that what is considered the “traditional tripartite formula” for hermeneutical interpretation among the Church of Christ – command, example, and necessary inference (CENI) – is subpar at best. The better hermeneutic from which to proceed in Biblical interpretation, per Olbricht, is “God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit” although the traditional method may be considered helpful regarding “specific matters of church order” (436). As the idea is developed across the span of the book, Olbricht recognizes that the parameters which define such a hermeneutic may be very large, and makes the very insightful remark that when a hermeneutic “does not recognize the full dimensions of life, the subsequent reductionism encourages varying degrees of lifeless Christianity” (443). The resultant “lifeless Christianity” is a common criticism leveled against the “traditional” CENI hermeneutic from many different sources. There can be no doubt regarding this insight, since religion turned into simple rule keeping is exactly what the Scribes and Pharisees were guilty of doing in the NT (Matt. 23), so Olbricht’s insights regarding the possibility of abusing a CENI hermeneutic are greatly appreciated by all concerned, but the proverbial goose and gander should not be forgotten. As Olbricht rightly indicates, just as there are different levels of hermeneutics, and different uses for these levels; “It is imperative that our hermeneutics be nuanced in such a way as to give recognition to these different levels.” In other words, Olbricht recognizes that different hermeneutical methods are appropriate for different situations; but, the CENI method is clearly presented as secondary and handicapped.

One certainly is reluctant to critique a minister/teacher/theologian of Olbricht’s caliber, and in truth the autobiographical presentation with interlocking theological and hermeneutical insights makes for an elegant and enticing read, but … One thought that occurred while reading is related to the nature of inference (as in Necessary Inference). Applying his hermeneutical method to a decision regarding the various styles of worship – contemporary vs traditional for example – Olbricht observes that while arguments from inference were being made during the deliberations, those inferences proceeded from the only valid beginning point: “the love and peace of God, the lordship of Christ, and the empowerment of the Spirit to produce faith, hope, and love in the body” (340). As an opening consideration for any Christian decision, what Olbricht describes as a valid beginning point is truly the only real foundation for ANY discussion, but inference is derived from logical reasoning and is not subject to opinion, no matter from what our opinion proceeds – even those lofty ideals presented. More than once the observation is made that we don’t need logic manuals for proper interpretation, but if inference (what must follow from the presented information) is divorced from it’s logical underpinning, then inference becomes opinion. Valid hermeneutics cannot proceed from opinion.

Another trend that began to appear as Olbricht’s basic hermeneutical philosophy evolved from pragmatic to narrative is the allowance of post-modern thought. Post-Modern philosophy is against the idea of absolute truth and is at the core antinomian, but this is not to say that Olbricht should be seen as rejecting the authority of the Scriptures. Indeed, it is obvious Olbricht does his best to maintain a biblical foundation for all the decisions and considerations that are recounted in the work. In regards to the post-modern thought, Olbricht concludes that worship method can vary among congregations, a conclusion that few would find objectional. Yet, the observation is made that as the questions put to the Scriptures has changed the usefulness of our “traditional hermeneutic methods” have begun to erode. Further, “When questions change, then theology changes. And when theology changes so does hermeneutics” (332). This thought appears full grown during the consideration of women in the worship is discussed in the final chapters. The decision was made to maintain a “traditional” stance on the role of women, but this is part of the comments associated with that decision:

"It is not wrong to insist upon God’s way, but one is not required to, except when major beliefs are involved, if too many people are hurt in the process. It is not wrong to prefer tradition, not is it wrong to agitate for change, as long as our top priorities are the love of God and an attitude of service toward the saints" (410).

One tries to appreciate Olbricht’s position, but balks at the idea that God’s way can be overlooked or disregarded if major beliefs are involved or if people have their feelings hurt in some way; and by “major beliefs” it is assumed cultural or social since God’s way could never be laid aside regarding “major beliefs” as expressed in the Scriptures. Simply because the goal of a person is a love for God or an attitude of service for others, does not make a doctrine or teaching acceptable. The Scriptures are the only reliable source for determining God's will, and God’s will is inviolable regardless of the high ideals of any individual. Olbricht and his colleagues may have been made the correct decision regarding the roles of women in the worship of the Saints, but the reasoning behind the decision seems to have proceeded from a position of compromise. The decision on the role of women in the worship seems to have been made so that one side of the dispute was mollified, not because the actions under consideration were or were not Biblical.

There is certainly much to be appreciated, complimented, and imitated in Hearing God’s Voice, and as a study in the formation of one man’s hermeneutical position the work is a well-done self-examination and exposition of the process. Any serious student of hermeneutics would do well to read this book and realize that these same formational processes – regardless of denominational theology or doctrine – occur in everyone; Olbricht seems to have a clear grasp of his unique philosophical positions.

Some quotes from the work:

“Since a proper understanding of God is the province of biblical theology, biblical theology and hermeneutics must work hand-in-hand” (9).

“When statements in Scripture cause life to take a drastic turn, an interpretation is obviously involved – a hermeneutic. The question is, what sort of hermeneutic?” (95)

“If we are to be a people of the book and live under it, then we must let the Scripture judge our presuppositions, rather than using it willy-nilly to give support to preconceived notions” (231).

“The proper interpretation of Scripture, therefore, first identifies God’s loving action for his people and his profession of why he acted. Only then does the focus shift to the manner in which God’s action is to be translated into human action” (277).

“And, while I agree with Post-Modernism that methodology is culturally relative, I am a relativist only in regard to methodology, not in respect to ultimate truth. I always have been and continue to be a monotheist” (313).

“A major problem with the approach of those who wish to envision Scripture as chiefly a book of discrete data is that they miss the story line. In fact, they are not even likely to be looking for one” (346).

“The beginning point for hermeneutics, therefore is God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, not commands, examples, and necessary inferences, regardless of how helpful these may be in regard to specific matter of church order” (436).

“Jesus Christ is therefore the ultimate hermeneutic. If God can best explain himself in person, we can best explain him too in his body, his living church”(446). ( )
  SDCrawford | Jan 24, 2017 |
A perspective of one member of the churches of Christ on hermeneutics -- the rules for interpreting Scripture.

The author, a well-educated and widely-respected preacher of the Gospel and university teacher, aims to "provide a helpful reflection on how to live under a God whose voice may be heard in his Word." (p. 13) To that end, I believe the author is successful.

Dr. Olbricht describes how the hermeneutic he espouses came to be, by evolving over his lifetime. Hence, there is much autobiography in this book, and it is an interesting one, especially for those of us who respect our stone-campbell religious history.

The book is not technical, so I believe readers from across a wide spectrum of ages, beliefs, and backgrounds should find it easy to comprehend. I expect that many will not be comfortable with the author's perspective and conclusions, but I also expect that many others will. The book is not a "cookbook" on hermeneutics.

The book features a large font, which is nice on the eyes. A drawback is that there is no index. I am happy to have this book be a part of my modest library and to have read it. I recently acquired my copy on the used book market. ( )
1 vote SCRH | Feb 20, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0891120181, Paperback)

In times of change, Christians have always sought enduring answers from the pages of Scripture. Our hermeneutic - our method of organizing and understanding the message of the Bible - predetermines what answers we will glean. But is our process of understanding based on the Bible, or on our cultural and historical assumptions? Dr. Thomas Olbricht looks back on the last sixty years in Churches of Christ and offers his observations of how our perceptions of Scripture have changed and evolved. He clears a path through the shifting thickets of an unsteady world; a path that leads toward the Everlasting - a way to hear God's voice.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:05 -0400)

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