The appointment, in the November 1994 consistory, came as a surprise as much to Grillmeier as to others. Already 84, he was beyond the age at which cardinals are eligible to vote for a new pope, so his elevation was regarded as symbolic.
Although a specialist on the dogmatic controversies of the early Christian centuries, Grillmeier became known at the Second Vatican Council (1962- 65), where he acted as theological adviser to Bishop Wilhelm Kempf of Limburg. From 1963 to 1965 he was also on the theology commission of the Council itself. He had a particular input into the drafting of the document Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which emphasised the collegiality of the bishops, an idea many of the council's bishops found unpalatable.
The council - which brought together nearly 3,000 Catholic participants and observers from other Churches - made a great impression on Grillmeier, who regarded it as a high point of his life. He remained committed to the changes brought about in the Catholic Church as a result of its work. During the second half of the council and in the immediate aftermath Grillmeier undertook four journeys to Zambia and Malawi to explain the documents adopted at the council to local clergy and missionaries.
Born in Bavaria in 1910, Grill-meier entered the Jesuit order in April 1929 after completing grammar school in Regensburg. He studied philosophy in Munich and theology in Valkenburg in the Netherlands. He was ordained priest in June 1937 in the middle of further theological studies in Frankfurt. He gained his doctorate in February 1942 in Freiburg after studying in Rome.
Two days after the graduation ceremony he was conscripted into the army and trained as a medical orderly in Ulm. He was then sent to the Eastern Front where he treated the casualties of the bitter fighting against Soviet forces. He was released from further military service in April 1944 as a member of the Jesuits.
Grillmeier then began a long teaching career in fundamental and dogmatic theology, most of which was spent as Professor of Dogmatics at the Sankt Georgen college in Frankfurt am Main, where the German Jesuits received their theological education. He retired in 1978 on his 68th birthday, but continued to write and lecture.
Grillmeier was committed to ecumenism. In the 1970s he became an adviser to the Pro Oriente Institute in Vienna, which promoted contact with other Christian Churches, especially in the East, and he took part in several unofficial theological dialogues with the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
But it was Grillmeier's written output - 12 major books and several hundred academic articles - that will be his legacy. Christ in Christian Tradition, his magnum opus, looked at the development of Christology from early Christian times to the ninth century, drawing particularly on the traditions of the Eastern Christian Church. Volume one was published in 1965 (with a revised version in 1975) and volume two in 1987. In a rare event, the work was published in English before the original German. Grillmeier published expanded versions of the second volume in the 1990s in collaboration with Theresia Hainthaler.
Grillmeier made few concessions in his academic writing to non- specialist readers. "We shall present the analysis of sources unabridged," he wrote in his introduction to the 340-page volume two of his Christ in Christian Tradition, "not for readers in a hurry, but for interested researchers and students."
But Grillmeier's writing was infused with his personal faith and had more than a simply academic aim. "If we are to proclaim the mysterium Christi in the language of our time, we must first have understood what the Fathers wanted to say in the language of their time."
Alois Grillmeier, priest and theologian: born Pechbrunn, Germany 1 January 1910; ordained priest 1937; named a cardinal 1994; died Munich 13 September 1998.