Novak (novak) wrote,

Theological Notebook: Ralph Del Colle (1954-2012)

Ralph Del Colle, my professor of Trinitarian systematic theology at Marquette and one of the members of my Doctoral Qualifying Exams board, died on Sunday. I didn't know him as well as I would have liked (I always got the impression that our senses of humor somehow just missed one another, but that he too found this amusing in itself), but every moment spent in his company was a pleasure. His seminar on the Trinity my second year is something I still come back to in my thinking and reading; his influence on the Trinitarian content in the classes I instruct is obvious to me; and stopping for conversation with him in the hallway or in his office was always refreshing and clarifying. He prepared me for my dissertation subject in ways I hadn't foreseen (he really ought to have been on my dissertation committee, but the text morphed in his theological direction only after I had already arranged my board). It was spontaneously comparing notes with him in the hallway one afternoon that began to hint to me just how influential the Catholic Charismatic Renewal had been, even if only episodically, in the formation of my teachers' generation of Catholic theologians. As that was confirmed for me in the stories I later heard from other faculty members, some of the potential for my dissertation to move in that way became clear to me.

Death always seems unfair in its timing, and I hate that he died so young when I think of his wife and children, or for the students he could have guided in the future. But from everything that I've heard from friends still in Milwaukee, he had a death that exemplified or revealed the heart of everything he believed: a holy death, with a kind of peace that the rest of the world would be stunned by, had they witnessed it.

As I've been keeping vigil from a distance electronically, and thinking about and praying for him and those he loved, I wanted to copy down here a few of the tributes that have been appearing in the last day.

Ralph Del Colle, 1954-2012
Posted: July 30, 2012 | Author: Stephen | Filed under: Uncategorized |Leave a comment »
I have a hard time admitting that this is true, but Dr. Ralph Del Colle, a Roman Catholic systematic theologian teaching at Marquette University, died last night. I find this deeply saddening, particularly as he leaves behind his wife and two adult children, after facing an aggressive and quickly-moving form of cancer. As others have done in more organized ways (see this post on his theological work), I feel compelled to share a few thoughts and memories about Dr. Del Colle.

For one thing, he was possibly the most prayerful Catholic I’ve ever known. Like myself, he would skip the occasional meal and eat an apple instead, but he prayed as regularly as most people eat. By that I mean, at a conference once he skipped breakfast the whole weekend and ate the hotel’s complimentary apples instead. I hope that it’s not disrespectful to share that sort of anecdote, but that’s just the sort of thing that Dr. Del Colle did, cutting corners on things that pertained to himself while doing other things to an extent that most people would find perplexing.

One of those perplexing things was his love for neo-scholastic theology. He mentioned once that his hero (“a sort of hero of mine,” is how he modestly put it, anyhow) was the 19th century Catholic theologian Matthias Joseph Scheeben. That is funny because many, probably most systematic theologians haven’t even heard of Scheeben, let alone deeply studied his works.

And it is revealing because Dr. Del Colle was one of the most well-read theologians out there. He was my adviser during my master’s program, and, given the fact that he seemed confused as to the course and paperwork requirements of that program (which made two of us), what I would do instead of talking about courses (though he would ask me about that as well) was to ask him about a given area of theology. “What should I read about x?” Invariably, he would have two or three books or authors in mind. (And I mean relatively obscure areas like Indian Catholic fundamental theology or Pentecostal liberation theology.) Somewhat comically, he wasn’t even a fan of quite a few things that he recommended, so, with the reading advice, he would occasionally offer a raised eyebrow.

But he was never judgmental, although he was always (in my experience) completely honest. Maybe more than anything else his unusual mixture of honesty and humility set him apart. He would dispense advice, then chuckle at the fact that I wasn’t going to follow it, since he could definitely be wrong after all. That was probably one reason that he was so good at ecumenical dialogue (a major area in which he worked). He had a difficult time refraining from saying what he really thought, but he never lost sight of the fact that he was a fallible human being.

He took a similar approach to political issues. One would never budge him from being a pro-life, traditional marriage-defending, social justice-affirming Democrat, but he had no problem at all with those holding opposing viewpoints. To some extent, he seemed reconciled to the fact that others would disagree with quite a few things that he thought, which must have been difficult at times given how thoroughly he thought things through.

Dr. Del Colle was always curious to know things like whether I had ever spoken in tongues or what Manchester, New Hampshire was like these days. That was because, despite his marked introversion, he was concerned about people and their experiences; and it was also because he had a childlike curiosity about even the most serious matters, like the distinction between nature and grace or Mariology.

After his published dissertation on Spirit Christology (which is cited quite often), he went on to write quite a few articles on issues like Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue. In recent years, he had talked about a book-length project on nature, grace, and Christology, which didn’t end up coming together for a variety of reasons. More than anything else, his life and work will go on through his friendships and his former students, many of whom have gone on from dissertations with him to become influential voices in Pentecostal theology.

I could write a lot more about his knowledge of Luther, Calvin, Aquinas, Reformed Scholasticism, papal encyclicals, the Latter Rain Movement, Oneness Pentecostalism, Karl Barth, and a whole other range of topics, but there is simply too much to mention. He knew historical and systematic theology better than most of the rest us ever will, had a huge impact on people, and lived an exemplary, Spirit-filled Roman Catholic life.

Ralph Gerald Del Colle
October 3, 1954 - July 29, 2012
57, of Milwaukee, passed into Eternal Life on July 29 preceded in death by his loving parents Flavia and Alfred Del Colle and survived by his beloved wife Lee Coppernoll and children Josh and Zoe Del Colle and dear confidant, twin sister Flavia. He is also survived by in-laws Sue and Dean Coppernoll, brother-in-laws Doug, Jeff and Kelly, sister-in-law Connie and many devoted cousins.

Ralph was born in New York City on October 3, 1954 and was raised in Mineola, Long Island. He attended Xavier High School in Chelsea and received a B.A. in Near Eastern Religions from New York University, and M.Div, M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Union Theological Seminary. Ralph taught for 17 years in the Marquette University Theology Department, prior to that he taught at Barry University, Miami Shores, FL and St. Anselm College, Manchester, NH.

Ralph’s lively Christian faith and interest in church unity led to his participation in ecumenical dialogues. He served as a representative to the Catholic-Pentecostal Dialogue for the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity for 12 years and also served on the Catholic-Reformed Dialogue and Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue, both for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was invited by the Pontifical Council to serve as representative to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998. In 2002-3, he served as the President of the Society for Pentecostal Studies and in 2003 Ralph received the Archbishop’s Vatican II Award. Ralph’s scholarly work, especially his work on the Holy Spirit, made significant contributions to the field of Systematic Theology.

Ralph’s was a voracious reader and loved to engage in vigorous discussion and debate on issues ranging from religion to politics to arts and culture to military history. He was a lifelong athlete who ran cross-country and was a black belt, training at the Kempo Goju Karate Fudoshin on Vliet. More importantly, Ralph’s gift for friendship was strong and he leaves a trail of friends across the US and beyond.

Ralph deeply loved his family and devoted time to exploring the United States with Lee, Josh and Zoe, often traveling with dear friends Suzi Schriar and Loren Iglarsh and their son Danny. As a New Yorker, Ralph relished time spent in that city with his family but he quickly became a huge fan of Milwaukee.

The family is grateful to the Mustard Seed Community for their care and feeding of the family over the past weeks, to the Marquette University Jesuit Community and to family, friends and colleagues who have been present in many remarkable ways during this time.

Visitation Wednesday, August 1, at the Funeral Home from 4 PM to7 PM with Vigil Service at 7 PM. Mass of Christian Burial on Thursday, August 2, at 10:30 AM at THE CATHEDRAL OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST, 812 N Jackson St. A light luncheon will be held immediately following in the Cathedral Atrium. Interment at Holy Cross Cemetery, 7301 W. Nash St., please meet at cemetery entrance at 2 PM for a Gravesite Committal Service. Memorials gifts may be given to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Office of Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs, 3211 N. 4th St., Washington, DC 20017 (please include note indicating that the gift is specifically for the Office of Ecumenism and Interreligious Affairs); the Society for Pentecostal Studies, 1435 N. Glenstone Ave., Springfield, MO 65802; Our Lady of Grace Catholic Spirituality Center, 2604 N. Swan Blvd., Wauwatosa, WI 53226; or Angiosarcoma Awareness, Inc., P.O. Box 570442, Whitestone, NY 11357.

Ralph Del Colle: A Man After God’s Own Heart
By: Dale M. Coulter
Monday, July 30th, 2012

2012-07-29 Ralph-Del-Colle 2When I got to the office this morning, I opened up my email and received the news that Ralph Del Colle had passed away last night at 7 PM. He was 57 years old with much left to say to the world, but God, in his infinite wisdom, thought otherwise.

It was just a little over a week after Ralph had received the Anointing of the Sick. A large community of folks had been in prayer for Ralph during his final days that God’s will would be accomplished in his life. His death is a great loss for all of us in the Christian community. I am sure that there will be other tributes to Ralph in the coming days, but, for now, I offer this initial effort to honor the life of one who sought God with all of the theological acumen he possessed.

Ralph Del Colle was associate professor in the theology department at Marquette University. I first met Ralph at an annual conference of the Society for Pentecostal Studies after watching him go after a presenter with a soft-spoken vigor that I came to understand was normal for him. Ralph always combined incisive remarks with deep passion, which sometimes got him into trouble with others. He also was deeply attuned to scholasticism in its various phases (medieval, neo, etc.), which placed him in a certain Catholic framework. As a medievalist, I sympathized with Ralph’s concerns for theological precision and clarity. I recall some great conversations in airports traveling to and from conferences about the medieval scholastics and their capacity to combine scholarly precision with spiritual depth. This combination was never lost on Ralph; indeed he seemed to emulate it throughout his life.

If you read Ralph’s work on Spirit Christology, you’ll see what I mean about scholastic precision and clarity. It is a probing and spirited defense of Spirit Christology as a viable and worthwhile model for construing the work of the Triune God in the world. It also takes some time to digest as Ralph interacts with a wide range of sources in order to substantiate his claims.

A reader who approaches Ralph’s life and work through that book might miss the pulse that drives it and drove Ralph. It is always present, hidden in plain sight for those who can see it. One glimpses this pulse in the final paragraph of an essay on the Trinity Ralph wrote in 1997:
Needless to say, the Christian doctrine of God is constructed on the foundation and capstone of Christian existence enacted in praise and worship. It is in this doxological event and context as the source and summit of Christian vision and understanding that the one God who is Father, son and Holy Spirit is known, proclaimed, and adored.
For Ralph, worship of the Triune God as an event, an experiential encounter that leads the believer to a vision of this God, is foremost. It is what fuses Ralph’s charismatic experiences on the one hand with his embrace of the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola on the other hand. It also explains how Ralph could be unashamedly (and at times quite passionately) Catholic and unreservedly ecumenical. Christian theology, even in its scholastic mode, is always doxological. It is an expression of worship, a tentative grasp of that deeper vision of the Triune God that gives rise to the delectation, the indescribable joy of the saints in heaven.

I must confess that Ralph’s departure has left me grappling with the mysteries of providence. And yet, his life charts a path forward. It is to attempt, however fleetingly, to seek this God with our whole hearts. To be men and women after the heart of God, as Ralph himself was. To see our feeble efforts at theological analysis as nothing less than doxological participation in the life of the Triune God. My one consolation now is that Ralph’s heart is content as his earthly language has now given way to a heavenly one and his earthly vision to a heaven vision. What he so ardently longed for and attempted to capture with as much precision as he could, he now sees.

As I contemplated all these thoughts in my head this morning, I turned to the Catholic Catechism with its quotation of the Council of Trent on the Anointing of the Sick, which Ralph had received: “This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house.” Ralph told me recently that his one desire in all of this was to surrender to the Lord, not the disease that wracked his body or anything else. He simply wanted to bear witness to God’s mercy and grace in a holy death just as he had done in a holy life. The Spirit of new life empowered him to do just that. May we all do the same.

“The Divine Grip:” Ralph Del Colle (1954-2012)
July 30, 2012 By fredsanders

2012-07-29 Ralph-Del-ColleTheologian 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.”
Tags: catholicism, christianity, christology, del colle, dissertation, marquette, obituary, pneumatology, systematic theology, teachers, theological notebook

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