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Asbury seminary professor Robert Mulholland to deliver Aldersgate Lecture

Aldersgate 2006

THERE is a great renewal today in the topic of spirituality. For that reason it is well to find someone who can cut through the many variations and provide a central guiding metaphor. The Rev Dr M. Robert Mulholland, the keynote speaker for the 2006 Aldersgate Convention, does this with his “biblical spirituality”.

The focal point of biblical spirituality is the powerful New Testament affirmation that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), the belief that the very mind of God became a human being and lived among ordinary humans.

From that starting point the Rev Dr Mulholland, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, breaks trail through two more amazing affirmations: first, that the Word has also become text, that is, in the Bible; and second, “that the Word is to become flesh in us”.

The latter is the goal of biblical spirituality, that Jesus Christ, God’s very nature in the flesh, should become manifest in our lives. This is not simply for one’s own personal good, but for the benefit of the world.

“The world will not know that God sent Christ simply because we pronounce it to be so,” he said, “but when they see Christ-likeness lived out in their midst in our lives in the world.”

The New Testament assertion that God was in Jesus fulfils the prevailing Old Testament hope that God would somehow be present with humanity. While there have been debates over the centuries on details regarding the incarnation, this assertion remains the heart of the Gospel which the Church has proclaimed for 2,000 years.

The belief that the Word has become text is a companion to the Word become flesh. While there have also been disagreements on the exact nature of Scripture, its authority, inspiration and canonical status, the Bible remains the central book of the Church, through which God reveals the way of salvation. “The Word becomes text in order to provide a transforming encounter with God,” said the Rev Dr Mulholland.

The power of biblical spirituality is not simply that we declare the deity of Christ or that we can read the Bible. Rather the point is “that the Word is to become flesh in us”.

The Rev Dr Mulholland examines two parallel Pauline texts in Colossians and Ephesians. “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19) is similar to “… that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”

(Ephesians 3:19). The way in which Jesus is full of the presence of God is a pattern for our lives. The goal for us is to be just like Jesus, which involves a process of growing “into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

This process involves a death and resurrection that identifies with Christ. “You have died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. Whenever Christ, who is your life, should become manifest, then you also will be manifest with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4, the Rev Dr Mulholland’s translation). This life, according to him, is not something we generate, but is “grounded with Christ in God”.

Through the cross of Jesus, “God has entered into the entirety of our self-referenced structure of being and confirmed it as dead,” he said, adding that God goes on, in the core of that deadness, to plant Christ “as the seed of a true life in loving union with God”. This idea is paralleled in Galatians 2:19-20, “I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

This involves a “mystical union with Christ,” by which we enter into the “life that has been hidden with Christ in God.” The manifestation of this new life in Christ is not just for the end of time, as some translations of Colossians 3:4 imply. Rather the new life can make a difference today.

Paul “is talking about an essential dimension of daily life,” according to the Rev Dr Mulholland, such that “whenever we allow Christ truly to indwell us, allow the Holy Spirit to transformingly empower us, allow the fullness of God to be the context and content our life in the world, then who we truly are becomes manifest in its Christ-likeness”.

There is a tension here between our “self-referenced life” and the “Christ-referenced life”. We try to possess and control our identity, he said, even though we are completely out of control. That is why our only response is “to be completely abandoned to God in love and fully available to God for others,” he said. In so doing, every situation offers new “opportunities for God to actualize our true self or identity”.

Jesus himself prayed for this loving union. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). This is not some arcane idea for scholars or monastics.

Biblical spirituality is about what Christ calls all of us to be in the world. For “the world will not believe in Christ because of our sound theology, our correct creed, our well defined dogma, our rigorous religiosity”, said the Rev Dr Mulholland. “It will believe when it sees Christ-likeness manifested in our life, when it sees the Word become flesh in us.”

By GEORGE MARTZEN

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THE Rev Dr M. Robert Mulholland (above) brings with him a wealth of personal and professional experiences. For 26 years he has taught New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in America. His areas of expertise include Spiritual Formation and New Testament and Christian Origins. He has held such positions as Dean, Vice-President and Provost.

A United Methodist clergy ordained in the Baltimore Conference in 1963, he has served various churches. He has written numerous articles and books, including the most recent Shaped by the Word, lnvitation to a Journey and The Deeper Journey, due to be released this month.

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