John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” contains a shift away from institutional idealism and toward a separationist theology that revived the Theology of Calling. It is perhaps the finest work of English nonconformist literature since John Milton and remains unsurpassed more than three centuries later.
Next to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, there is no greater representative of nonconformist Protestant literature than John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Alongside Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s epic—if the reader can indulge me to say—is among the most famous works of pilgrim literature. Undeniably low-church, Protestant, and reformed, Bunyan’s classic is a window into the early nonconformist mind and reveals a seismic shift in Christian thought that emanated out of the Radical Reformation.
In his introduction to the classic book Roger Pooley writes, “The Pilgrim’s Progress, then, is a nonconformist text in the wildest sense, as well as in the highly specific context of Restoration Nonconformity… Theologically, he remains within the Reformed theology of Luther and Calvin just as it was going out of flavour with the intelligentsia.” Bunyan’s radical nonconformity, individualism, and anti-Catholicism (even implicit anti-Anglicanism) shouldn’t dissuade readers from venturing into the labyrinth of Bunyan’s psychology which emanates out of the pages of the book; in fact, one should venture to jump into that labyrinth and walk the pilgrim’s maze.
That the book is written “in the similitude of dream” is important to recognize. Bunyan claims that his authority and inspiration is from God and the Bible, not any ecclesiastical body, mystical or otherwise. Irrespective of whether Bunyan read John Calvin, which is debated in scholarly circles, Calvin’s classic apologia The Institutes of the Christian Religion follows the Augustinian dictum that to know God is to know thyself. Calvin’s Christianity is introspective just as Augustine’s Christianity was. So too is Bunyan’s Christianity in the fact that the allegory he writes is “in the similitude of a dream.” The pilgrim’s progress is as much a physical and external pilgrimage as it is an internal one.
Furthermore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Bunyan chose a dream as the medium to communicate his story. Dreams factor prominently throughout the Bible. Or, perhaps, “visions.” For visions and dreams were synonymous in the ancient through early modern world. Ezekiel had visions. Daniel had dreams or visions. So too does our authorial voice inform us that he had dream-like visions. Being a dream, the whole work is an inner journey—it echoes Milton’s Paradise Lost, “To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess / A paradise within thee, happier far.” There is no greater possession, paradise, than this paradise within thee.
Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress opens in the dark wilderness and with a pilgrim in need of rest and guidance: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den: and I laid me down in that place to sleep.” From here, however, the aptly named pilgrim, Christian, will flee from the City of Destruction to the heavenly city on Mount Sion. Thus begins the first level of the labyrinth known as The Pilgrim’s Progress: Allegory.
It is crude for anti-Protestants to belittle the Protestant tradition as fundamentally literalist. It is true that the Reformers were suspicious of the hyper-allegorizing that had come to dominate Scholastic theology, but the Protestant Reformers themselves never abandoned typology or an acceptable form of allegorical reading. Bunyan, in this regard, serves as a buttress against such narrow-minded point-scoring in interreligious debate. Bunyan was as Protestant as you can get: He was a nonconformist, he was low church, he had an extremely thin ecclesiology, if he had an ecclesiology at all—but a “literalist” in the way that such people use the term as mockery he was not. (We should also never forget that the Church Fathers were also literalists; none ever denied the historicity of Scripture, and the very historicity of the Old Testament record is what permits the allegorical-ecclesiological-Christological hermeneutic to flourish in the first place.)
The allegory of The Pilgrim’s Progress is probably the easiest part of the work to understand. At one level it is allegorical. Ironically, it is at another level very literal and blunt in its allegorical signification.
Irony, here, is the great allegorical tool of Bunyan’s work. His allegory is steeped with irony which makes the work amusing and funny. The first earthly companions that Christian meets are named Obstinate and Pliable. Obstinate is truly obstinate in his objections and bewilderment at Christian’s decision to “leave [his] friends and [his] Comfort behind.” Pliable, befitting his name, is plied away from Obstinate, only to be plied back to the comforts of the City of Destruction after coming to the “slough of Despond.”
Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who dwells in the town of “Carnal Policy,” is supposedly wise but is, as we know, utterly foolish. Likewise, Mr. Atheist, aptly named, laughs when Christian encounters him and tells him of his journey to God to rid himself the burden of sin which bears down on him. “I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a Journey; and yet are like to have nothing but your Travel for your Pains.” Yet the fool saith in his heart there is no God. Mr. Atheist is, in this regard, more ignorant than Mr. Ignorance. He proclaims that Christian and Hopeful are “ignorant” in their pilgrimage and laughs uncontrollably at them, but the reading audience of John Bunyan gets the last laugh at the ignorance of Mr. Atheist.
Mr. Talkative too is an ironically appropriate name. Talkative, of course, is the man of intellectual knowledge who lacks what Bunyan considers true faith. Talkative talks and talks and talks but never does. As Faithful rebukes him, we see Bunyan insert himself into the current theological debates between the nonconformists (Christian and Faithful) with the Anglican Divines (Talkative): “A man may know like an angel, and yet be no Christian: Therefore your sign is not true. Indeed to know is a thing that pleaseth Talkers and Boasters; but to do, is that which pleaseth God.” Mr. Talkative is, upon close inspection, representative of the Anglican hierarchy, those learned men who talk but never do.
Irony, humorous irony, abounds throughout the pages of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The ironic humor of Bunyan’s novel is, shall we say, pleasing in and of itself.
Against the other great pilgrim works of the preceding age, Bunyan’s stands out in its seemingly paradoxical tug of war between an intellectualism, which he himself criticizes, and an activity which is also criticized. It is not, however, contradictory—at least to the mind of Bunyan. The essence of Dante’s pilgrimage was that he came to learn and know love, and how this learning and knowing of love brought him the power to journey into the heavenly realm of the white rose. Bunyan’s Christian, however, isn’t concerned with learning and knowing love but learning and knowing faith through hearing the calling of God in his life.
In our dialectical minds we have a hard time parsing out how knowledge and works are compatible with each other. Perhaps this is an ironic legacy of the Radical Reformation. Yet we just read from Bunyan that “A man may know like an angel, and yet be no Christian: Therefore your sign is not true. Indeed to know is a thing that pleaseth Talkers and Boasters; but to do, is that which pleaseth God.” And those words, we must not forget, were spoken by Faithful.
Christian grows stronger through his trials and tribulations. From the slough of Despair to the Valley of the Shadow of Death to his fight with Apollyon, Christian’s many trials and tribulations make him stronger. According to Bunyan’s theology, suffering doesn’t make one weak but strong. This is a hallmark of traditional Christian theology that became a cornerstone of Reformed theology and remains a cornerstone of conservative and confessional Reformed traditions. Suffering is not a curse but a blessing. After all, the many sufferings that burden Christian serve to aid him on his journey to Mount Sion and eventual entry into the Heavenly City.
Yet the greatest struggle that Christian goes through on his journey is his coming to know faith and how this knowing of faith leads to proper action that was first spurred by the call of God to flee the City of Destruction. His dialogues with various characters who are also travelling—Formalist and Hypocrisy, but most especially Ignorance—underscores this reality. Bunyan does not see faith and works in opposition to each other. He sees them as integrally related. Faith involves a proper knowing. From that proper knowing, there is proper doing. Now we might quibble as to what the “proper” or “true” knowledge is, but Bunyan is very clear as to what it is for him.
When Christian says he “walk[s] by the rule of [his] master” and condemns Formalist and Hypocrisy for walking “by the rude working of [their] fancies,” we begin to understand Bunyan’s radical Christianity of which Dr. Pooley spoke in his introduction. Formalist and Hypocrisy do because they are told to do—they are like the brain-dead Anglican and Catholic pilgrims who do just because, or like the Pharisees of the Bible enamored with the legalism of the law. Christian walks by the rule of God; only what God commandeth man obeyeth.
In Christian’s encounters with Ignorance, the second level of Bunyan’s labyrinth is revealed to us. Ignorance is the do-good Pharisee. During their first encounter, Christian asks him how he will enter the Gate of Paradise. Ignorance echoes the Pharisee in Luke 18: “I know my Lord’s will, and have been a good Liver; I pay every man his own; I pray, fast, pay Tithes, and give Alms, and have left my Country for whither I am going.” (“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”) Ignorance adds a certain legalistic relativism to his creed, “Gentlemen, ye be utter strangers to me, I know you not; be content to follow the Religion of your Country, and I will follow the Religion of mine. I hope all will be well. And as for the Gate that you talk of, all the world knows that is a great way off of our Country.”
The encounter between Christian and Ignorance leads us to the deeper reality of Bunyan’s work because it contrasts Christian’s calling with Ignorance’s calling—if we can even call it that. Steeped in biblical theology, Bunyan follows the narrow gate of the Christian’s calling out of the City of Destruction. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, and Abraham obeyed and ventured to the land of Canaan. God called Lot out of Sodom and Gomorrah and delivered him from the fire and brimstone that consumed those earthly cities. God called the Israelites out of Egypt and delivered them into the land of milk and honey. God called the exiled Jews out of Babylon and restored them. And, as St. Paul teaches, God is calling Christians out of the earthly Jerusalem and guiding them to the Jerusalem above.
Now we realize how magnificent Bunyan’s Theology of Call works in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian is called out of the City of Destruction and is told to travel to the Celestial City in a pattern reminiscent of the Old Testament stories and the New Testament hope. Ignorance, as we can now see, is not called out of destruction by God but follows the mechanical laws of his Country’s religion and wills himself apart from God’s call—God’s grace—to make it to the heavenly city.
Here we see how Bunyan links knowing with doing: As in the Old Testament stories, Abraham, Lot, Moses and the Israelites, and the exiled Jews all answered God’s call. They knew the Lord their God had revealed himself to them and did not remain fastened to their old homes but began their pilgrimage to the Celestial City.
This movement of calling to knowing is also the crux on which the conclusion of Bunyan’s work turns. Throughout the book Christian has been visited by various helpers along the way. Just as God had routinely sent helpers in the Old Testament and promised the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, Christian is visited and aided by helpers like Evangelist, Prudence, Piety, Charity, Faithful, and Hopeful (Hope, of course, the greatest theological virtue according to Bunyan, is the longest serving of the companions who accompany Christian and is the only one to enter the Gates of Paradise with him because one must have Hope to complete the race). However, the astute pilgrim reader will have noticed that all these helpers do, literally, help and enlighten Christian on his path.
Christian may have received God’s call to leave behind the City of Destruction and to pilgrim to the Celestial City, but along the way these various helpers reveal important truths of the Christian faith and hope to Christian. Hence Bunyan magisterially ties revelatory knowledge to truth revealed by Evangelist, Prudence, Piety, Charity, Faithful, and Hopeful as Christian encounters them.
When Christian meets Ignorance again, his position of receiver of illumination changes in a spectacular role reversal. Christian is now the in-situ apostle thanks to everything he has learned over the course of the journey. Over the course of their dialogue, it is revealed, pardon the pun, that Ignorance truly lacks any knowledge of God or the purpose of the pilgrim’s journey. Christian concludes their conversation by saying,
‘Give me leave to put in a word: You ought not so slightly to speak of this matter: for this I will boldly affirm (even as my good companion hath done) that no man can know Jesus Christ but by the revelation of the Father; yea, and faith too, by which the soul layeth hold upon Christ (if it be right) must be wrought by the exceeding greatness of this Mighty Power; the working of which Faith, I perceive, poor Ignorance, thou art ignorant of. Be awakened, then, see thine own wretchedness, and fly to the Lord Jesus; and by his righteousness, which is the righteousness of God, (for he himself is God,) thou shalt be delivered from condemnation.’
As Ignorance is left behind, Christian and Hopeful converse one final time as they approach the Celestial City. In the final conversations between Christian and Hopeful we see that Christian has been transformed into an exemplar of the knowledge of truth. After Christian informs Hopeful how the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom,” Hopeful replies, “Well said; I believe you have said the truth.”
Only after this affirmation of the truth being said, the truth being known, this proper knowing leading to the right journey, can Hopeful and Christian proceed to the slopes of Mount Sion. Christian and Hopeful make their triumphant entry into the Gates of Paradise after this long and arduous journey. Ignorance, of course, stumbles up behind them only to be turned away and cast into hell:
For it happened, that there was then in that place one Vain-hope, a Ferry-man, that with his Boat helped him over; so he, as the other I saw, did ascend the hill, to come up to the Gate… I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was Dream.
The dream, the omniscient narrator conveys to us, is something of a revelation to his audience. Bunyan makes his theology of calling and knowing explicit in the concluding remarks: “Now Reader I have told my Dream to thee; / See if thou canst interpret it to me. / Or to thy self, or Neighbours, but take heed / Of mis-interpreting: for that, instead, / Of doing good, will but thy self abuse. / By Mis-interpreting, evil ensues.”
We must have the right interpretation—or, in other words, the right knowledge of the faith—in order to be saved. Misinterpretation leads to abuse and evil. At the end of the pilgrimage, Christian has interpreted everything correctly. Hopeful affirms this. Because Ignorance had interpreted incorrectly, though he be on the same journey, he was taken away and cast down into hell.
This leads us to the final layer of the labyrinth that Bunyan has constructed for us. He asks us, the reader, to interpret the Dream correctly. Otherwise, evil will ensue. If the gentle reader permits me, I have been interpreting Bunyan’s dream and have reached the final road of that interpretation: the greatest and deepest allegory in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Let us return to this theology of calling which Bunyan takes from Sacred Scripture and rewrites for us in the similitude of a dream. Bunyan, as we know, was a radical nonconformist. He was also a devout Calvinist. Christian’s call out of the City of Destruction is Bunyan’s esoteric message for “Christians” inside the Restoration Church of England to come out of the city fitted for destruction. The Restoration Church of England is Formalist, Hypocritical, and Ignorant of the true faith which Bunyan has expounded for us in his allegorical pilgrimage.
Bunyan is warning his fellow readers that to remain in the formalist, ignorant, talkative Restoration Church is to consign oneself to condemnation. Like Christian, who is imprisoned in Vanity-Fair, Bunyan was imprisoned during the Restoration. The life of Christian mirrors the life of Bunyan. Bunyan was originally an idealist, a man who fought in the revolution and favored an initial cleansing of the Church of England. But is this what God called his People to do in the Bible? Sure, there is the Commission to preach and baptize and teach—but the weight of Scriptural theology is a calling out.
As mentioned, Abraham is called out of Ur of the Chaldees. Lot is called out of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Israelites are called out of Egypt. St. Paul teaches that the hope of Christians is to be called out of the earthly Jerusalem and ascend to the heavenly Jerusalem. The Church Fathers, most notably St. Augustine and St. Gregory Nazianzus, also write of this call of the Church out of the world as it pilgrims in this world to the next.
“The Pilgrim’s Progress, then, is a nonconformist text in the wildest sense, as well as in the highly specific context of Restoration Nonconformity.” Indeed it is. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress may not be as aesthetically magisterial as Milton’s Paradise Lost. But it is, as I hope we can now see, a Protestant’s book. It contains in its pages the great seismic shift away from institutional idealism and toward a separationist theology which revived the Theology of Calling found in Scripture and the Church Fathers. It is, above all, perhaps the finest work of English nonconformist literature since John Milton and remains unsurpassed more than three centuries later. There is a lot of John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress, and perhaps that is why it is quintessentially Protestant and timeless.
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The featured image is “Christian at the foot of the cross – Pilgrim’s Progress” by Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.