Jan 29, 2011

JOHN BUNYAN by J. C. Philpot

JOHN BUNYAN by J. C. Philpot

John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" is known wherever the English language
is spoken. No, it has become known beyond those limits, by means of
translation into most of the European, and into some Oriental tongues. A
great critic and historian has said that the seventeenth century, so prolific in
writers, produced but two thoroughly original works, which would be handed
down to posterity; and it was noteworthy that both these were produced by
the pens of Dissenters—Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," and Milton's
"Paradise Lost."

Bunyan himself, we believe, was not aware of his own peculiar genius. Owing
nothing to education, his powerful intellect grew like a wild tree, unpruned
and unnailed to university wall, but it made up in strength for what it might
lack in symmetry. He possessed by nature three rare gifts, which education
might have refined, but could not have imparted, and possibly might have
weakened—a most vivid imagination,—a singular power of dramatic
representation,—and a most expressive style and language. The first and last
are self-evident; the second may require a few words of explanation. Bunyan
possessed, then, one of the rarest faculties of the human mind—the power of
so throwing himself into the very character which he was drawing that he
makes him speak exactly as that person would have spoken had he actually

A Puritan in principle and practice, he justly abhorred the theater; and yet,
without knowing it, he possessed in the highest degree that very talent in
which consists the perfection of that species of writing. By means of this
peculiar talent, his men and women are to us as substantial realities, as
thoroughly living, breathing characters as if they had actually existed.
Christian, Pliable and Obstinate, Faithful and Hopeful, with matronly,
prudent Christiana, and modest, maidenlike, timorous Mercy—we know them
all as if we had lived next door to them. This perhaps is his most striking
faculty, and has made the "Pilgrim's Progress" a spiritual drama. What life
and animation has this gift cast over it! Look, as a sample, at Obstinate's short
and characteristic sentences. "Tush! away with your book. Will you go back
with us or no?" "What, more fools still!" Compare these sharp, short, iron
sentences with Pliable's soft, wax-like, ductile words, "And do you think that
the words of your book are certainly true?" How his pliable disposition is
shown by this soft, drawling sentence to turn and wind itself round Christian's
belief! But what a peculiar gift was this to strike off with a few words two
characters which have imprinted themselves on the minds of hundreds of
thousands! But look also at his vivid, powerful, picturesque imagination. How
image after image comes forth with unflagging interest and boundless variety!
What force and power in his pictures! The Slough of Despond, and the Wicket
Gate, and the Hill of Difficulty, and the Castle of Giant Despair, the Valley of
the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, Faithful's trial, and the close of all—the
passage of the Dark River—why does the mere mention of these scenes recall
them at once so distinctly to mind?

Because they are drawn by a master's hand, giving form and body to scenes
pictured in his imagination as living realities. His hand but executed what his
eye saw; and thus his vivid imagination has engraved them more deeply on
our memory than many scenes which we have seen with our bodily eyes. Is
any book so well remembered? Has any made so vivid an impression? And all
without the least effort on the part of the writer.

The third striking feature is the plain, clear, strong, noble, good old Saxon
English in which it is written, a style so admirably suited to the great mass of
readers, and at the same time possessing, from its purity and simplicity, a
peculiar charm for the most refined English ear.

"But," suggests a reader, "you have merely noticed the genius of Bunyan!
What was that? It was only nature. There was no grace in that. Why do you
not speak of his grace and experience, and the teaching of the Spirit in his
soul?" But, my good friend, don't you see how the Lord bestowed this genius
on a poor illiterate tinker for a special purpose? Did not grace sanctify his
natural genius, and direct it to the glory of God and the good of his people?
And don't you perceive how this peculiar genius, of which you think so lightly,
was absolutely necessary to produce the "Pilgrim's Progress," a work which
will live when our heads are laid low? Bunyan was not striving after effect,
beyond the best of all effects—being made a blessing to the church of God. He
was not aiming at a dramatic representation of character, which a playwright
might well envy. He saw Christian with his mind's eye in the Slough of
Despond. His own feet had been fast held there. He saw and heard him in the
dungeons of Giant Despair. He had lain there himself, and the iron had
entered into his soul. He did not sit down as a play-writer to produce a drama,
of which every character and scene were thoroughly fictitious. He had himself
passed through all the scenes, and was, under the name of Christian, the
leading character, the hero of the piece. The successive scenes were all deeply
imbedded in his memory, and they came forth from his mind and pen as the
deepest and most solemn realities.

He therefore, under an allegory, described what he himself had seen, and
where he himself had been, as a voyager in the Arctic regions might depict the
frozen seas and piercing climate where the iceberg dwells in lonely grandeur;
or as a tropical traveler might retrace the bright skies and lovely isles where
the sun walks in its meridian glory. Thus Bunyan is himself reflected from
every page of the "Pilgrim's Progress." He is the pilgrim who progresses from
the City of Destruction to the heavenly Jerusalem. It is, in fact, his own
experience so far modified as not to be exclusive. He did not, like some, set up
his own experience as a standard from which there must not be the slightest
deviation. Mercy, who hardly knows why or wherefore she set out, except to
accompany Christiana, is drawn as a vessel of mercy as much as Christian,
who spends his nights in sighs and tears. But still he has drawn with vigorous
hand a certain definite path, in tracing which the highest genius and the
greatest grace combined to produce a work blessed beyond measure to the
church of God, and yet so animated with natural talent as to be handed down
to an earthly immortality. Who shall say the hand of God was not here? Who
but he raised the immortal tinker to this distinction? The same hand which
took David from the sheep-cotes to feed his people Israel raised Bunyan from
the tinker's barrow to feed the church of God; and the same power which
gave David strength and skill to sling the stone put into Bunyan's hand a pen
which has done far more execution.

But besides these extraordinary endowments of genius and grace, Bunyan's
experience was in itself peculiarly calculated to produce a work like the
"Pilgrim's Progress." Were we to characterize this experience in one short
sentence we should say it was the abiding power of eternal things resting on his
soul. He did not only believe, he saw. The word of God did not merely speak to
him; it entered into his inmost soul. Hell, with its sulphurous flames, Heaven,
with its glorious abodes, were to him more distinct realities than the earth on
which he trod; for the latter was but temporal, while the former were eternal;
the one but a passing shadow, the other an enduring reality. So when the law
sent its curses into his inmost conscience, he saw more clearly its lightnings,
and heard more distinctly its thunders, than his outward eyes ever saw the
vivid flash or his natural ears ever heard the pealing thunders of a passing
storm. The dark clouds of the natural sky soon rolled away, and ceased to peal
forth their terrors, but the Law knew no intermission for time or eternity.
Thus, too, when Christ was revealed to him, he saw him by the eye of faith
more distinctly than he ever saw any literal object by the eye of sense; for the
natural sun itself, the brightest of all objects, could but fill his eye, but the Sun
of Righteousness filled his very soul. When he talked with God, he talked to
him more really, truly, and intimately than he could ever talk with an earthly
friend, for to God he could unbosom all his heart, which he could not do to
any human companion. His spiritual sorrows far outweighed all his temporal
griefs, and his spiritual joys far surpassed all his earthly delights. The one
were measured by time, the other by eternity; man was but the subject of one,
God the object of the other. The experience of the power of eternal things
made Bunyan such a mighty preacher.

"For I have been in my preaching, especially when I have been engaged in the
doctrine of life by Christ, without works, as if an angel of God had stood at
my back to encourage me. Oh! it has been with such power and heavenly
evidence upon my own soul, while I have been laboring to unfold it, to
demonstrate it, and to fasten it upon the consciences of others, that I could not
be contented with saying, I believe, and am sure; methought I was more than
sure (if it be lawful to express myself) that those things which then I asserted
were true."

His was no cut-and-dried ministry, but the outpouring of his whole heart; and
as God had blessed him with remarkable powers of expression, he sent arrow
after arrow from his full quiver, lodging them in the hearer's conscience up to
the very feather. He was not what men commonly call eloquent, and yet was
so in the highest sense of the term, for his words were words of fire. The most
manly fervor was combined with the greatest simplicity; language which a
child could understand came forth from his lips, but a giant wielded the
words. Blow after blow, thrust after thrust came from his vigorous hand. The
subject was simple, the manner of handling it was simple; but the simplicity
was that of the life-guardsman's sword, of which the hilt is not gilded nor
blade filigreed. Ornament would be foreign to the massive strength of either.
Bunyan will make himself understood. He uses many words, but not a cloud of
idle epithets. He thus addresses at the same time the understanding and the
conscience, and reaches the latter through the former. The point of the sword
enters the understanding; one home-thrust carries the blade deep into the
conscience. This is the perfection of preaching—clear thoughts and words
which pass at once into the understanding, and home-thrusts which reach the
very soul. How many preachers and writers fail here! Confused ideas, cloudy,
long, entangled sentences, which require the utmost stretch of attention to
understand, perplex alike speaker and hearer. "What is the man driving at?
Poor fellow! he hardly knows himself what he means;" and similar thoughts
rise up almost involuntarily within. Others again speak and write with
tolerable clearness, but their words are like Jonathan's arrows. None hit the
mark. The arrow is beyond the lad, and the conscience is no more touched
than the great stone Ezel, behind which David hid himself.

Bunyan was a most prolific writer. His mind teemed with divine thoughts. His
heart was ever bubbling up with good matter, and this made his tongue the
pen of a ready writer. Besides the "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Grace
Abounding," his two best works, for in them his whole heart lay, his "Holy
War," "The Two Covenants," his little "Treatise on Prayer," his "Broken
Heart the Best Sacrifice," and others which we need not name, are deeply
impregnated with Bunyan's peculiar power and spirit. There is some powerful
writing in the three treatises contained in the little volume before us.
That he is in places somewhat legal, and speaks too much of the "offers" of
the gospel, we freely admit. This was the prevailing theology of the day, from
which scarcely any writer of that period was free. But he sometimes employs
the word "offers" where we should rather use the term "promises" or
"invitations;" these said "offers" being not so much offers of grace to dead
sinners as promises of mercy to God's living family who feel they are sinners.
But we are unwilling to dwell on his blemishes. The Lord, whose servant he
was, honored him in life, was with him in death, and his name will be dear to
the church of God while there is a remnant on the earth.

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