Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

John Bunyan, Federalist: Of Parchment Rolls and Covenants

Academic journal article Bunyan Studies

John Bunyan, Federalist: Of Parchment Rolls and Covenants

Article excerpt

John Bunyan did not need to tell contemporary readers of The Pilgrim 's Progress why his Pilgrim carried first one and then another parchment roll or what he read in them. That would have been common knowledge. Only much later would such knowing slip out of mind - even of minds acquainted with the details of seventeenth-century Calvinist faith. Bunyan made clear beyond doubt that those rolls, especially the second one, were the Pilgrim's successive passports to heaven and that his reading of them sustained his hope and enhanced his assurance of God's saving grace. That was their generic function. Their specific nature and central substance, however, have eluded scholarly discovery.

Bunyan did not mean his message to be cryptic; he was writing to be read and understood; his allegories stand splendidly plain upon the page. About the parchment rolls he left a trail of clues that clarify their natures and indicate their contents. Bunyanists have commonly, and correctly, seen the rolls as bearing witness to the Pilgrim's good standing in God's eyes. Correctly too, they take them for tokens of divine charily, promised in the first roll, certified by the second. They understand that the documents convey God's love by registering the Pilgrim's state of grace. So far, so good. But scholars have then leaped to the conclusion that the rolls - the second one, at any rate - record the decree of election that determines the Pilgrim's salvation. This reading, I will argue, is wrong. It is not knowledge of the divine decree, personally applied and confirmed, but knowledge of the divine covenant that sustains the Pilgrim's progress to heaven.1

God's covenantal or federal doings and dealings do not stand bold in The Pilgrim 's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come: Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. In point of fact, they do not stand at all; rather, they move. But so intimate and tacit is the moving that they have eluded scholarly perception. The presumed absence of federal matter, in turn, has depressed interest in rummaging for such esoterica elsewhere in the 4,000 or so pages of the modern edition of Bunyan's 'miscellaneous' works.

In a study-in-progress of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and Scottish covenant theology I argue, chiefly from three of Bunyan's writings, that grace given and warranted by covenant holds a central place and takes a forward part in his exposition of saving faith. Those three are The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded, The Holy War, and The Pilgrim 's Progress itself. To canvass the first two would require too many pages for an article. But the evidence of the third is alone sufficient to make the case for John Bunyan, federalist.

The argument must drive against the story's apparent lack of federal substance. None of God's three known covenants - of works, of grace, and of redemption - appears by name; the first and last do not appear at all. Bunyan might have used the covenant of works to ground and gloss the mountain of the moral law that early on, in grand Mosaic manner, flashes lightning and threatens to crash upon the Pilgrim's head - but he treats the peril as scripturally generic rather than federally specific and gives this tottering Sinai no explicitly covenantal standing. Nor does he invoke the covenant of redemption, made before time between the Father and the Son with the Spirit sometimes serving as recorder. English theologizing of God's federal actions topped out in that compact around mid-century, but the thing itself cannot be found in Bunyan.

The absence of federal bases and markers is noteworthy because, by the mid-seventeenth century, those theological constructions had got a great grip on the mind - the diverse minds - of English Dissent. Scholars have noted, by word or silence, that the Pilgrim's spiritual errand lacks commission and direction of a specifically federal kind. This wayfaring Christian is not found to have any express engagement ofthat sort. …

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