“The Divine Grip:” Ralph Del Colle (1954-2012)

Theologian Ralph Del Colle has passed away this week from cancer. When an accomplished thinker of his stature dies before age sixty, it is almost inevitable that he will have left some promising projects uncompleted. I think Ralph was working on a christology book, for instance, though I don’t know how far along the manuscript was. But Ralph’s work was of a special kind: his theological projects were so solid, so judiciously elaborated, and so fruitful, that I think he was consistently way out ahead of the current field. Trinitarian theology today still needs to catch up with the late Ralph Del Colle.

His greatest work was the published form of his dissertation, Christ and the Spirit: Spirit-Christology in Pneumatological Perspective (Oxford, 1994). Del Colle picked up the contemporary interest in using Spirit categories to explain how Jesus was divine, and rescued it for the cause of orthodox doctrine. Plenty of modern theologians had flirted with the idea that the real secret to Jesus Christ’s divinity was that he was a man who was perfectly indwelt by the Spirit of God, but most of the thought projects that started down that track ended up rejecting traditional logos-christology or at least relativizing it with a competing Spirit-christology. It has been sad to see a good insight into the Bible –that the Holy Spirit played an integral role in the mission of Christ– run off the rails into heresy time and again. And some kind of heresy, usually adoptionism, was always lurking in the regions of spirit-christology.

The genius of Del Colle’s book was that, while equally excited about doing justice to the pneumatological element of christology, he was fully committed to the Chalcedonian categories of classic christology. He wasn’t taking back one iota of the traditional doctrine: Christ is the second person of the Trinity incarnate, joining a complete human nature to the full divine nature in the hypostasis of the Son. But, he added, the role of the Spirit can’t be left as an afterthought: “the third article cannot simply be an addendum to the centrality of the second article in testimony to God’s saving gospel.” So, with the help of the very precise categories of Roman Catholic neoscholastic thought (names like Scheeben and Mersch occur frequently in this book), Del Colle set about describing the role of the Holy Spirit in christology proper, in a theological project “that attempts to inform christology with an equally important and central pneumatology.”

It’s a great book, a dense but readable tome brimming with insights into the Bible and historical theology, forging new connections, and squashing dangerous ideas flat. In the preface, he declared his theological point of view:

The Christian experience of God is one with contours that are shaped by what Irenaeus imagined as the ‘two hands of God.’ Christ and the Spirit are God’s way into the depths of the human condition, the divine grip, so to speak, upon our fragile and tenuous reality. To know this, to realize that one is in the grasp of divine knowing, is the beginning of all Christian theology. My attempt in the following pages is to come to terms with that in the realm of a christology that realizes its dynamism must proceed from a robust pneumatology.

In print, Ralph Del Colle habitually expressed himself in technical theological vocabulary, writing clearly but at a high level of complexity. But look! If you read it carefully, you see in the paragraph just quoted the secret of his theological work: he studied christology and pneumatology in depth and at length because he knew Christ and the Holy Spirit in person. He never got lost in the thicket of scholastic or academic wrangling, because he went into that thicket fully equipped with the patience and the quiet confidence of a man who is intimate with the God he is writing about. When he named his book Christ and the Spirit, he named it for his savior and lord.

After that brilliant performance, I think the theological world expected more Del Colle monographs, but they never emerged. Partly this was because he had recurring health issues, but mainly it was because he made other investments with his very productive career. He did generate a series of important shorter pieces, articles (one of the best is available free here) and book chapters. But he also engaged in a fascinating series of ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, including work with Adventists, Oneness Pentecostals, and Living Stream Ministry (Witness Lee’s organization). He wrote a guidebook coaching Roman Catholics in how to converse with evangelicals, and he not only joined the Society for Pentecostal Studies but served as its president for one term. He was one of the founding editors of the International Journal of Systematic Theology, for which he wrote a series of wise, brief editorials. And he taught a lot at Marquette University for many years, especially giving guidance to doctoral students there.

Ralph was the outside reader for my 2001 dissertation on the Trinity. He was an attentive reader: the copy I sent him was missing p. 94, and he immediately wrote me to demand that I fax it to him, thereby passing the unintended “did you really read my whole dissertation” test! He flew out to California for the oral defense and subsequent celebration, and was as usual a wonderful interlocutor in all ways. He appreciated my work and showed me some places where I had lucked into the right answers without fully understanding what I was doing, and he also firmly corrected my mis-reading of Walter Kasper on an important point. I was a doctrinally conservative evangelical Protestant, and he was a doctrinally conservative Roman Catholic, and Berkeley was a strange place to meet. Between our agreement on the modifier “doctrinally conservative” and our convergence on trinitarian theology, we had far more to agree about than to disagree about. In the following years, we stayed in touch about a few issues in contemporary theology, and I always enjoyed checking in with Ralph at conferences. I’ll miss him, and I’m grateful for his work.

Ralph Del Colle’s friends and colleagues have put together a festschrift, A Man of the Church: Honoring the Theology, Life, and Witness of Ralph Del Colle, and Wipf & Stock may bring it out before the summer ends. Michel Barnes is the editor, and he promises that there is a previously unpublished essay by Ralph to be included in it: “Spirit Christology: Dogmatic Issues.”


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