Pilgrim's Progress | Study Guide

John Bunyan

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Pilgrim's Progress | Themes

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Path to Salvation

Throughout The Pilgrim's Progress, Christian is engaged in an ongoing process of spiritual discernment. Specifically, he learns through his trials to distinguish the heart of Christian life from the many things that are inessential or even detrimental to salvation. In the beginning, he carries a great many mistaken notions about what is necessary for him to be saved; his encounters throughout his pilgrimage pluck these misconceptions away like leaves from an artichoke. Mere piety, he discovers, is insufficient, as is the cultivation of personal virtue. No model of right living—being civil to one's neighbors, obeying the law, or striving to be a moral person—is adequate without divine grace.

In dramatizing this process of discovery, John Bunyan (1628–88), a Separatist, is weighing in on a longstanding dispute about a question first posed in the Acts of the Apostles: "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30). The answer given in Acts is simple: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (16:31). However, the exact role of faith in salvation has been debated much more intensely through the centuries than this answer might seem to imply. The Catholic position (and thus the position of the Church in the medieval West) is that both faith and good works are necessary: the works demonstrate, or prove, the person's faith. This position was attacked as incompatible with Scripture during the Protestant Reformation, and the official stance of German religious leader Martin Luther (1483–1546) and his fellow reformers was sola fide, sola gratia: "faith alone, grace alone." That is, only through God's grace can a person be saved, and only through faith can a person participate in that grace—although this sola fide position is not supported by the Christian Bible. From the Lutheran—and, for that matter, the Calvinist—viewpoint, the performance of good deeds on earth is an expression of God's grace, never a way of "earning" it.

By the 17th century, however, Protestantism had itself become a diverse set of denominations, united as much in their rejection of Catholicism as in their embrace of any shared theological principle. The Separatists, along with the Puritans and a growing number of other Protestant sects, rejected the sola fide position as too extreme and reaffirmed the role of good works in salvation. This is the viewpoint espoused throughout The Pilgrim's Progress, where those who express faith in God but fail to follow his commandments are not merely called out as hypocrites but threatened with damnation. That faith is necessary, meanwhile, is never in doubt for Bunyan: those who merely try to be good people without God's help are missing an essential ingredient for salvation.

Bunyan, however, does not simply come out and say that faith without works is insufficient, a claim he is happy to make for "works without faith." He is well aware of Acts 16:31, a verse that seems to make an open-and-shut case regarding the criteria for salvation. He gets around this potential scriptural roadblock in a time-honored fashion: if a person truly has faith in God, he says, that person will avoid sin and live virtuously. A faith too weak to manifest itself in good works is, Bunyan seems to argue, not the kind of faith envisioned in the Acts of the Apostles. This position is especially evident when Bunyan's protagonists encounter lip-service Christians who have read the Bible and claim to believe but whose "conversation" (i.e., their manner of living) is a godless one.

Because he is writing an allegory and not a theological treatise, Bunyan is ultimately spared from having to articulate a precise position in the faith-and-works debate. It is clear, however, that he holds out little hope for those who say they believe but fail, or refuse, to act accordingly.

No Shortcuts, No Detours

In addition to the "faith and works" debate Bunyan dramatizes throughout The Pilgrim's Progress, there are several characters who simply attempt to cheat their way into the Celestial City. First to appear are Formalist and Hypocrisy, who briefly join Christian just after he passes through the Wicket-Gate in Part 1, Chapter 3. Unlike him, they have gotten in by climbing over the wall, thus bypassing the gate entirely. He explains, as he was told by Evangelist, that only those who come through the Wicket-Gate will be saved. Formalist and Hypocrisy scoff at him and counter that their people have been coming in over the wall for centuries. The broad point here is that, in Bunyan's Protestant theology, those who are called by God must still respond via the proper means; namely, faith in Jesus Christ. This faith must be an inwardly held conviction, not a mere ritualistic performance (Formalist) or outward profession (Hypocrisy).

Perhaps the most notable shortcut taker, however, is Ignorance, who appears in the final two chapters of Part 1. His story is significant because he is evidently unaware of having done anything wrong, unlike some of the other false pilgrims. When he pushes back against the reasoning offered by Christian and Hopeful, he seems to be arguing in good faith, if at times a little high-handedly. His main crime, as allegorized by Bunyan, consists in having joined the pilgrims' way via a "crooked lane" from his home country rather than walking the entire long road from the Wicket-Gate onward. Ignorance later hires a ferry to carry him over the River of Life, which seems like a sensible way of overcoming a physical obstacle but is, of course, against the rules of The Pilgrim's Progress. In fact, for Christian and Hopeful the ease with which Ignorance "gets over" death is a bad sign, since saints are supposed to suffer right up to the end. When Ignorance is condemned to hell for taking the easy way out, Bunyan drives home his point: neither shortcuts nor detours are permitted on the pilgrimage to heaven.

"Dark" Means May Lead to Holy Ends

From the very beginning of his book, Bunyan is engaged in a battle against detractors real and imagined. He is preoccupied—not necessarily unreasonably—by the idea that The Pilgrim's Progress will be rejected because it is an allegorical work, expressing religious truths through extended symbolism instead of stating them plainly and literally. Even the title page of the original edition reflects this concern: "I have used similitudes," Bunyan quotes from the biblical Book of Hosea (12:10). A similitude here is a metaphor or, as it is usually rendered in modern translations of the Bible, a parable. Thus, from page one Bunyan is proactively justifying his own use of similitudes by pointing out that God himself sanctions the practice.

In the apology (introductory poem) to Part 1, Bunyan offers a much more detailed defense of his use of allegory. He repeats the point, suggested on the title page, that symbolic language appears in numerous instances large and small throughout the Bible. In addition, Bunyan offers some metaphors of his own to explain why a "dark" (i.e., obscure) manner of writing or speaking may nonetheless bear fruit: crops are nourished by rain, he points out, whether it falls from "dark" clouds or light ones. Bunyan also cites non-Scriptural works, both literary and philosophical, to show that many wise people have viewed "dark" symbolism as a worthy means of conveying important ideas. The apology to Part 2 ("The Author's Way of Sending Forth ... ") reinforces and partly repeats this argument to justify the publication of a second volume in a similar style.

In the house of the Interpreter, Bunyan takes things one step further: he gets, to use a modern term, metafictional. Both Christian in Part 1 and Christiana in Part 2 visit the Interpreter soon after they pass through the Wicket-Gate. In his house, each is escorted through a veritable museum of different religious symbols. They view paintings, witness dramatic scenes, and contemplate natural and man-made landscapes, all with the Interpreter standing by to explain the spiritual meaning of what they behold. In introducing such a character, Bunyan does more than provide himself with a convenient way of stuffing even more symbolism into his book. He also justifies the place of symbolism itself in religious instruction (after all, his heroes repeatedly profit from such instruction) and sanctions his own role as an "interpreter" for his readers.

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