John Bunyan’s Prophetic Vision and Pilgrim’s Progress

As I prepare for my qualifying exam this summer I will be blogging through some of the books I am reading as a means to clarifying my thinking.  These posts are not intended to be terribly original or fully developed, but merely gesture towards some interesting lines of analysis.

John Bunyan

Continuing my journey through books I read in freshman survey Brit Lit. class and since forgot about, this weekend I moved from Paradise Lost to John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress.  As with Paradise Lost, I was pleasantly surprised at how the fresh the text seemed to me and, especially given my religious studies bent, how much Bunyan’s work foregrounds so much of the writing of the Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century.  Of particular interest, though, is the way Bunyan uses the “dreaming” device to frame his famous allegory of Christian life.  By framing the bulk of his text as a vision or dream Bunyan thus performs a subtle rhetorical move that has significant resonances for the rest of the text.  Specifically he is able to locate his vision within the realm of Old Testament visionary prophecy – a tradition that enjoyed a remarkable resurgence during and after the English Civil War – and the burgeoning print culture that disseminated radical ideas during the interregnum.  In doing so he infuses the text with subtle social and political commentary that both complicates and textures the overt evangelical and religious message of the allegory.

Pilgrim’s Progress begins with a verse poem in which the narrator frames the story that he claims comes to him in a dream:

And thus it was: I, writing of the way

And race of saints, in this our gospel day,

Fell suddenly into an allegory

About their journey, and the way to glory,

In more than twenty things which I set down.

This done, I twenty more had in my crown;

And they again began to multiply,

Like sparks that from the coals of fire do fly.

Nay, then, thought I, if that you breed so fast,

I’ll put you by yourselves, lest you at last

Should prove ad infinitum, and eat out

The book that I already am about.

These lines are crucial to the vision that follows in that Bunyan’s language here is rich with prophetic resonances.  For example in comparing the thoughts he has to set down to sparks and coals he clearly evokes Isaiah 6, where the prophet falls into a sleep and is commissioned by God to go prophesy:

1In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.

 2Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.

 3And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

 4And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

 5Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.

 6Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:

 7And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.

 8Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.

Here the coals touched to the lips cleanses them and allows Isaiah to accept his prophetic calling.  Likewise, the sparks of Bunyan’s thoughts become the material of his prophetic book – the materiality of which he acknowledges upfront – writing that so many prophetic sparks threaten to “eat out” the book he is “already about.”  Nevertheless the narrator feels compelled to prophetically confront culture with the overflow of his visionary ideas.

This prophetic tone continues throughout the verse introduction to the allegory as Bunyan considers whether he ought to publish his words or not – some friends advise him to, while others advise against it. This debate indicates the extent to which, especially in the religious climate of the Restoration, publishing one’s prophetic words at large was a potentially dangerous business.  The events of the English Civil War and Restoration spawned a bevy of prophets like Anna Trapnel, Abiezer Coppe, and Gerard Winstanley, all of whom used the words of God call the world to repentance and true faith.  Many of these prophets claimed to have received their messages in visions or dreams and then published them in cheap print editions for the general public. Anna Trapnel even performed her prophecies publically in a trance.  Such “enthusiasm,” especially after the restoration was seen as potentially dangerous and seditious – threatening the newly restored political and religious order.  Particularly when such prophecy ended up in print, it often took on a life of its own as print was notoriously difficult to police and could spread ideas like wildfire.

What, then, was so potentially dangerous about Bunyan’s prophetic vision?  Why does his narrator debate over whether to publish it at large?  The answers to these questions lie largely in the specificities of the religious climate in England during the Restoration and specifically Bunyan’s status as a Baptist dissenter who refused to join the Church of England and often preached without a license.  Likewise, the almost proto-Evangelical message of the text itself flies in the face of much of the accepted theology of the Restoration Church.

For example, some of Christian’s greatest temptations come not from lust, greed, or avarice but from seemingly innocuous sources like Morality and Legality.  In fact one of the first people Christian meets is Mr. Worldly Wisdom who advises him not to continue on to the narrow gate, but detour to the village named Morality where, “dwells a gentleman whose name is Legality, a very judicious man, and a man of very good name, that has skill to help men off with such burdens as thine are from their shoulders.”  This is seemingly innocent enough fare but within this encounter is coded a harsh criticism of the Church of England which, after the Restoration moved increasingly towards a non-offensive, latitudinarian type of morality religion wherein true faith was determined by attending Church, living an upright moral life, and obeying the law.  Thus in identifying Morality and Legality as snares to the true Christian life Bunyan is anticipating the critique of people like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and George Whitefield who, during the eighteenth century Evangelical Revival, privileged the religion of the heart over the morality of the established order.

This theme is brought out in even more clearly when Christian is near the end of his journey.  As he and Hopeful are walking together they meet Ignorance, who enters the King’s Highway from a crooked byway.  Ignorance, it turns out, is sure of his salvation because he affirms the gospel message to be true and has followed all the outward signs of religion.  However, when Christian and Hopeful question him further, it becomes clear that he has not had a clear conversion of the heart.  It is a crucial passage, so I will quote at length:

IGNOR: But is not a good heart that hath good thoughts? And is not that a good life that is according to God’s commandments?

CHR. Yes, that is a good heart that hath good thoughts, and that is a good life that is according to God’s commandments; but it is one thing, indeed to have these, and another thing only to think so.

IGNOR: I believe that Christ died for sinners, and that I shall be justified before God from the curse, through his gracious acceptance of my obedience to his law.  Or thus, Christ makes my duties, that are religious, acceptable to his Father, by virtue of his merits; and so shall I be justified.

CHR. Ignorance is thy name, and as thy name is, so art thou; even this thy answer demostrateth what I say. Ignorant though art of what justifying righteousness is, and as ignorant how to secure thy soul, through the faith of it, from the heavy wrath of God.  Yea, thou also art ignorant of the true effects of saving faith in this righteousness of Christ, which is, to bow and win over the heart to God in Christ, to love his name, his word, ways, and people, and not as though ignorantly manifest.

In this exchange are echoed all the key concerns of Bunyan and the later Reformers – that religion has become a simple matter of outward practice, devoid of any inner transformation of heart and life.  For Bunyan salvation was not a simple matter of acceding to a creed, it was an all encompassing encounter with the divine.  Thus Ignorance ultimately meets his end at the gates of the Celestial City when he is denied entry and sent through the back door to Hell.

My ultimate point here is that if this seems rather mundane and commonplace fare, this is perhaps because the theology that Bunyan articulates here has become so foundational to modern day evangelical movements.  The theology of grace and heart transformation that we can trace from Bunyan through to Wesley and Whitefield and on to the present day has come to dominate much of our religious discourse.  This reading, however, overlooks the fundamentally radical and prophetic nature of the text.  In articulating this viewpoint Bunyan was flying in the face of the political and religious order – an order than had been shaken to its very foundations by the events of the Civil War.  By prophetically framing his dream vision in print Bunyan was wading into the waters of religious enthusiasm that were still roiling and inviting censure from both public and establishment.  The fact that Pilgrim’s Progress has been printed more times than any book except the Bible still does not obscure the fact that its message was radical and its author a revolutionary.

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