Bunyan, Bible Commentaries and the Unpardonable Sin

By Taylor, Iain | Bunyan Studies, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Bunyan, Bible Commentaries and the Unpardonable Sin


Taylor, Iain, Bunyan Studies


John Bunyan resembles Hamlet to the extent that his state of mind, and especially whether or not he suffered from some kind of depressive mania, has been extensively picked over by scholars down the years. In his famous study, Varieties of Religious Experience, William James describes Bunyan as 'a typical case of the psychopathic temperament, sensitive of conscience to a diseased degree'.1 Much of the evidence for his agonized mental and spiritual state comes from the first half of Bunyan' s spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), which records in particular his anguish about whether he has committed the unpardonable sin. Grace Abounding is however, as Christopher Hill says, 'an unsatisfactory document for the biographer'.2 Obvious caveats about its usefulness as a source include its historicity, since it was no contemporary diary but was written more than a decade after the events it describes. It is also irritatingly devoid of references to other occurrences in the outside world against which Bunyan' s spiritual ups and downs may be plotted during the turbulent 1650s. It had an undeclared purpose above and beyond the mere depiction of his spiritual experiences, too, since its aim was to demonstrate, or inflate, its author's credentials as a preacher in a post-Restoration religious establishment profoundly suspicious of those seeking to minister the word of God without formal academic qualifications.

But Grace Abounding is clearly no work of fiction either. Bunyan's autobiography indicates that over a lengthy period of time he suffered acute spiritual distress about whether he had committed the unpardonable sin, and the issue resurfaces in his later writings, too. Probably the best known example comes early in The Pilgrim 's Progress where Christian encounters the unnamed man in the iron cage, who has so hardened his heart that he cannot repent. Nothing is left to him therefore except 'certain Judgement and fiery Indignation'.3 Fortunately for Bunyan he did not end up in that place of despair, although he often thought he might. This is because, after nine years in his 'psycho-spiritual maze',4 he was able to reconsider the Bible passages that caused him most grief. Sometime in late 1657 or early 1658, it seems, Bunyan recovered from his period of doubt and despair about his salvation.5 As he puts it, 'Now did my chains fall off my Legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away'.6

Precisely why those chains fell off at this particular point in time, enabling Bunyan to escape the fate of the man in the iron cage, has baffled many scholars. As ?. H. Keeble has remarked, 'the resolution of [Bunyan's] obsession is not fully registered and perhaps cannot be fully explained; it simply happens'.7 At one level, as Richard Greaves has rightly pointed out, Luther's commentary on Galatians 'had been a powerful influence in his conversion'.8 This had impressed upon Bunyan the impossibility of salvation by mere Outward reformation', or obeying the Law, and instead insisted upon grace as the only means by which the sinner may be reconciled with God. In a memorable phrase, he described the German Reformer's seminal work as 'most fit for a wounded Conscience' such as his.9 However, the great roadblock to redemption Bunyan faced was the possibility of his having committed the unpardonable sin, and thereby having forfeited forever the abundant grace he so craved. According to Grace Abounding, it was immediately after consulting Luther's commentary that Bunyan fell prey to the terrible idea that he had perpetrated the unpardonable sin by yielding to Satan's temptation to 'sell and part with this most blessed Christ'. His feelings of terror that he had sold Christ (in supposed imitation of the Old Testament character Esau) were so strong that he felt as if he was being 'tortured on a Rack for whole dayes together'.10 Over the next twentyfive pages or so, he recounts the process by which he eventually persuades himself that he has done nothing of the sort and that his salvation is assured. …

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