by Michael Nausner
David Field’s book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease, borrows its title from a hymn by Charles Wesley that marks the direction of the entire text: the Wesleyan passion for the unity of the church amidst strife based on holiness. Starting from a distinctive interpretation of holiness understood as the gracious and transformative work of divine love in human persons, Field aims in this book to develop a constructive Wesleyan approach to the issue of unity amidst theological and ethical diversity. He is guided here not so much by a strict reiteration of Wesleyan thought, but rather wants to write in the spirit of a “dynamic continuity of Wesley’s central ideas” (xvi).
Given Field’s intention to write for a contemporary context, one is struck by the book’s astoundingly thorough anchoring in Wesley’s writing. Field exhibits a profound familiarity with John Wesley’s collected works, and a similarly broad knowledge of contemporary Wesleyan scholarship. Not surprisingly, “The Catholic Spirit” with its call “to be of one heart” plays a major role in this book on Christian unity, but the argument is supplemented with a wide range of references from Wesley’s entire oeuvre. Two additional texts stand out as reference points for his argument: “A Caution against Bigotry” takes center stage in the book, and Field considers it “potentially more revolutionary” (61) than “The Catholic Spirit.” Indeed, he succeeds in highlighting it as a text showing that Christian unity is not to be understood as unity against other groups. Another recurring text Field repeatedly refers to is “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” which at first glance seems surprising in the context of an argument about unity rooted in holiness. But the references serve their purpose in showing that Christian unity does include cooperation with others (71), that holiness shows itself as righteousness (85), and that experience plays a key role in Wesley’s argument (109).
A recurring emphasis throughout the book is on Wesley’s insistence that Christian unity is not so much about doctrinal agreement but more about the lived reality (the holy life) of being transformed by love of God and neighbor. Unity, then, is more about how Christians live together than what they believe. In Wesleyan terms: Zeal for love is more important than zeal for opinions. At the same time, Field repeatedly emphasizes that this does not mean that opinions are not important. But they need to be struggled for in a loving community.
In my opinion, the title of chapter 2, “Participating in a Diverse Community as a Means of Grace,” could serve as the title for the entire book. Here Field makes it very clear that neither theological nor ethical diversity as such are the problem, but rather the way they are dealt with. He explores the two typical Wesleyan concepts of the means of grace and of social holiness and concludes that participation in a community of diverse theological and ethical opinions serves as a means of grace if it is approached as an opportunity to embody Christian love.
Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease ends with an afterword dealing with the contentious debate within the worldwide Methodist connection on the role of homosexual Christians in the church. In the spirit of unity based on holiness the author argues that a division of the church on this (or any other) issue is only legitimate if members would be forced to act against their conscience or prevented from following their conscience.
While in a number of passages Field criticizes Wesley for certain inconsistencies in his depiction of holiness, he still is convinced of the relevance of a Wesleyan theology of holiness for the contemporary church. The book deserves a longer review to unveil several fresh and promising insights into Wesley’s theology. Suffices it here to say that this is a major and timely contribution to the field of Wesleyan scholarship in three respects: First, it offers a fresh interpretation of holiness as intimately connected with righteousness and thus as a social phenomenon; second, it convincingly shows that and how Wesley was concerned with the transformation of humanity rather than with doctrinal rectitude; and third, it offers a number of methodological suggestions regarding how to deal with theological and ethical diversity based on this understanding of holiness.
Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease : A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity. Nashville, TN: Foundery Books, April 2017.
$40.00. Paperback. ISBN 9780938162247.
For other formats: Visit the Publisher’s Website.
Note: This review was originally published on the Reading Religion website.