Pastoral Perspectives in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1)

By Peter Kinley

A pastor once commented that since there is such a strong pastoral emphasis in The Pilgrim’s Progress, it should be mandatory teaching for candidates for the Christian ministry. On the other hand, an Oxford scholar, B. R. White, says of The Pilgrim’s Progress, “the sense of the surrounding presence of a church fellowship was almost completely absent.” Another Bunyan scholar, Pieter de Vries, writes, “In The Pilgrim’s Progress the church plays a very modest role.”

Who is right? In his concluding poem to part 1 of The Progress, Bunyan tells us the book has to be interpreted. He warns us against miss-interpretation, against playing with the outside of his dream, and urges us to look for the substance of his matter, saying,

Put by the curtains, look within my veil;
Turn up my metaphors, and do not fail
There, if thou seekest them, such things to find,
As will be helpful to an honest mind.”

So a hermeneutical task lies before us, and if we engage in it, we shall find that the local church plays a vital role in the pastoral care of Christian on his pilgrimage from this world to the next.

The first evidence of this is Bunyan’s portrayal of EVANGELIST. He is really a pastor/evangelist, as Paul wrote to Timothy “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). Not a high profile, itinerant, campaign organising, decision-seeking, type of evangelist. He probably represents John Gifford, who was pastor at Bedford from 1650-1656. In his testimony, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan writes about being under conviction,

About this time I began to break my mind to those poor people in Bedford, and to tell them my condition; which when they heard, they told Mr. Gifford of me, who himself also took occasion to talk with me, and was willing to be well persuaded of me, though I think from little grounds; but he invited me to his house, where I should hear him confer with others about the dealings of God with their souls; from all which I received more conviction, and from that time began to see something of the vanity and inward wretchedness of my wicked heart; …

In all probability, John Gifford was also the model for the “picture of a very grave person” in the House of the Interpreter, signifying a godly pastor. The figure “had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written on his lips, the world was behind his back. It stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over his head.”
Interpreter explained that the man was one of a thousand who “can beget children, travail in birth with children, and nurse them when they are born.” In bringing people to spiritual birth, and caring for the spiritual infant, we see the evangelistic pastor or the pastor/evangelist at work.

Interpreter warned Christian that the picture represents the only man whom the Lord of the Celestial City had authorised to be his guide in all difficult places he may meet on his journey, and he was to take good heed to what he had seen in case he met others who would pretend to lead him right, but would in fact lead him down to death.

So the evangelist’s work is not done when the sinner comes to profess faith in Christ. He is a shepherd who will remain with the sheep throughout the journey, and the sheep are to take notice of him. So it is hardly wrong to say that the work of true evangelism continues throughout the length of the journey, guiding pilgrims in the right way that leads to life and warning them about the broad road that leads to destruction.

This is borne out by noting the three occasions on which Evangelist appears. The first encounter is at the City of Destruction where he appears as one seeking sinners. He drew out of Christian a confession of his state by a judicious use of questions, “Why are you crying?” “Why are you unwilling to die?” “Why are you standing still?” Evangelist did not have one cure-all remedy for every sinner, but by these questions showed his interest in Christian as an individual, and endeavoured to diagnose his state and need before giving him spiritual counsel.

Then Evangelist gave Christian a parchment-roll on which was written, “Fly from the wrath to come” showing that his counsel was based not on opinion but on the written revelation of God. He then asked Christian if he could see the Wicket Gate. When Christian said he could not, he directed him to the shining light close to it. In other words he was pointing Christian to Christ who is the Narrow Gate that leads to life. If he followed the light of the Word, it would lead him to Christ. He fitted his advice to the capacity of the man he was trying to help.

We meet Evangelist for the second time when Christian was at the high hill on the way to the village of Morality to see Mr. Legality, having been misdirected by Mr. Worldly Wiseman. Evangelist again used questions in dealing with this wandering sheep. “What are you doing here?” “Aren’t you the man I found crying outside the City of Destruction?” “How is it you have so quickly turned aside from my direction, for you are now going the wrong way?” He also asked what Mr. Worldly Wiseman had said to Christian. Then he applied warnings from the Word of God to those who turned out of the way. He spoke at length about Christian’s error until the pilgrim was convicted, at which point Evangelist
turned to encouragement, saying the man at the gate would receive him, but he must be sure not to turn aside again. “He kissed him, gave him one smile, and bid him God-speed.” (Emphasis mine). He gave him but little encouragement that he might realise the seriousness and danger of his error, but not so little as to make him despair.

Bunyan here portrays a man for whom evangelism and pastoral care are inextricably linked. A man who comes to rescue straying sheep and guide them in the right way. That he had been instrumental in causing Christian to make a “decision” to start his journey was not enough. He had an ongoing pastoral concern and sense of responsibility for this man.

Our third encounter with Evangelist is just before Christian and Faithful arrive at Vanity Fair. The two pilgrims welcomed Evangelist most warmly, for it had been he who set Faithful as well as Christian on his way to the Narrow Gate. Once again we find him using questions. “How has it fared with you since last we met?” “What have you met with and how have you behaved yourselves?” Evangelist spoke much to encourage the travellers, but also warned them that they “must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” He told them that one or both must seal their testimony with blood in Vanity Fair, and urged them to remain faithful unto death.

Evangelist did not hide from the pilgrims the fact that the Christian life can be beset with many trials. Bunyan presents him not as a man whose sole interest was to fill pews, but who had a genuine and ongoing-interest in those who turn their backs on the City of Destruction, knowing it is those who endure to the end who shall be saved. So he started them off on the way of life, but was never far away thereafter, and would be on hand to warn, re-direct and encourage.

Having entered through the Wicket Gate, Christian was told to call at the House of the Interpreter where he would be shown excellent things that would be a help to him on his journey. Is the Interpreter’s House a symbol of the local church, and does the Interpreter portray a godly pastor? Alexander Whyte in his Bunyan Characters thinks so. He writes, “And since every minister of the gospel is an interpreter, and every evangelical church is an interpreter’s house, let us gather up some of the precious lessons to ministers and to people with which this passage of The Pilgrim’s Progress so much abounds.”

However, it is more usual to see the Interpreter as a reference to the Holy Spirit and His work. At this point in the story, Bunyan inserted the word “illumination” into the margin, which must surely be a reference to the work of the Spirit in illuminating the sacred page and leading believers into all the truth. Thus Thomas Scott,

The Interpreter emblematically represents the teaching of the Holy Spirit according to the Scripture; for, while believers read, hear, and meditate, and endeavour to profit by their daily experience and observation, they also depend on this promised teaching, and by constant prayer look to the Fountain of wisdom, to deliver them from prejudice, preserve them from error, and enable them to profit by the ministry of the word.

George Cheever similarly writes,

This good man of the House, the Interpreter, we are, without doubt, to take as the representative of the Holy Spirit, with his enlightening and sanctifying influences on the heart. He is our Comforter, Guardian, and Guide through all our pilgrimage; our Instructor to take of the things which are Christ’s, and to shew them to our souls; our Sanctifier, to lead us into all truth, and to make it the nourishing food of our souls, and with it and in it bringing Christ before us continually, to fasten our affections upon him, and make him, of God, unto us, our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

Another example is Barry Horner, “The Interpreter is the Holy Spirit who is inseparably associated with the Word of God. It is He who makes the Word ‘living and powerful’ (Hebrews 4:12), who communicates and illuminates the truth (2 Timothy 3:16), and especially as it concerns the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 15:26).”
It seems undeniable that these writers are correct in their interpretation, and Bunyan’s annotation is conclusive, but in view of the connection between the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the Word, and the connection between the ministry of the Word and the local church, does Alexander Whyte not have a point? Particularly helpful is his comment on the variety of scenes that were to be found in the Interpreter’s House. He writes,

The significant rooms of that divine house instruct us also that all the lessons requisite for our salvation are not to be found in any one scripture or in any one sermon, but that all that is required by any pilgrim or any company of pilgrims should be found in every minister’s ministry as he leads his flock on from one Sabbath-day to another, rightly dividing the word of truth. Our ministers should have something in their successive sermons for everybody. Something for the children, something for the slow-witted and the dull of understanding, and something specially suited for those who are of quick apprehension; something at one time to make the people smile, at another time to make them blush, and at another time to make the water stand in their eyes.

So, whilst the Holy Spirit must have the pre-eminence in our understanding of the Interpreter’s House, yet as Horner says, the Holy Spirit “is inseparably associated with the Word of God”9, and as it is the minister’s task to interpret and apply that Word as he himself is taught by the Spirit, there is something here to instruct us about the local church as the place of pastoral care for the pilgrim, such care being provided by the Spirit-anointed ministry of a godly pastor who faithfully declares the whole counsel of God. A preacher who rides a hobbyhorse would not meet with Bunyan’s approval.

1 It is not known who the pastor was, but he made the comment in a seminar taken by Dr. Barry E. Horner who refers to the comment in his book, Themes and Issues from the Pilgrim’s Progress, Reformation Press, New York, 2001, (hereafter, Horner, T & I) page 184.
2 B. R. White, “The Fellowship of Believers: Bunyan and Puritanism,” article in John Bunyan, Conventicle and Parnassus, ed. N. H. Keeble, page 1, and quoted in Horner, T & I, page 184.
3 Peiter de Vries, John Bunyan on the Order of Salvation, Peter Lang, New York, 1994, page 80, and quoted in Horner, T & I, page 184.
4 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Accurate Revised Text by Barry Horner,
Reformation Press, New York, 1999, page 203.
5 Quoted by Horner, T & I, page 185f.
6 Alexander Whyte, Bunyan Characters, Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier, Edinburgh and London, 1893, page 76.
7 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, edited, with notes, by the Rev. Thomas Scott, Chatto & Windus, London, 1876, page 36.
8 George B. Cheever, Lectures on the Pilgrim’s Progress, and on the Life and Times of Bunyan, Thomas Nelson, London and Edinburgh, 1899, page 195.
9 Barry Horner, T & I, page 48.
10 Alexander Whyte, op. cit., pages 80f.

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