John Bunyan

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I have been reading your e-mail list for quite a few years. I know you study the scriptures according to their original languages. We haven’t gotten that far yet, although, I hope we will. When I became stumped on this question, I knew I had to ask you. My children and I are reading John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress aloud and we are wondering about: 1. the theology of the author; 2. his meaning of the man in the iron cage of despair at Interpreter’s house; and 3. if this is biblically accurate. We are so early in the story, I think we are going to need some help with this book. If you have anything you would like to recommend, I will take it in high regard. Sincerely, Lori

I thought this was going to be an easy question to answer, but I was wrong. Trying to track down the theological beliefs of John Bunyan has proven to be difficult. Here is what I was able to find:

John Bunyan (1628-1688), English Christian preacher and writer, was a nonconformist, meaning he didn’t belong to the Church of England, or to put it more exactly, he would not conform to the rules of the established Church of England. Those who belonged to any non-Anglican (Church of England) church were called nonconformists. Some people also use the term to refer to the Puritans who practiced or advocated dissent against the Church of England. The nonconformist churches included Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, and the Salvation Army.

After conversion, Bunyan became a member of a Baptist/Congregational church in Bedford (it seems that this church was composed of both Baptists and Congregationalists at this time), then later he became the pastor of that church.

Some time before his final release from prison Bunyan became involved in a controversy with Kiffin, Danvers, Deune, Paul, and others. In 1673 he published his Differences in Judgement about Water-Baptism no Bar to Communion, in which he took the ground that “the Church of Christ hath not warrant to keep out of the communion the Christian that is discovered to be a visible saint of the word, the Christian that walketh according to his own light with God.” While he owned “water baptism to be God’s ordinance,” he refused to make “an idol of it,” as he thought those did who made the lack of it a ground for disfellowshiping those recognized as genuine Christians. Kiffin and Paul published a response in Serious Reflections (London, 1673), in which they argued in favor of the restriction of the Lord’s Supper to baptized believers, and received the approval of Henry Danvers in his Treatise of Baptism (London, 1673 or 1674). The controversy resulted in the Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists leaving the question of communion with the unbaptized open. Bunyan’s church admitted pedobaptists to fellowship and finally became pedobaptist (Congregationalist). (

We can say that Bunyan was a Congregationalist, although that denomination during Bunyan’s time was probably quite different than the denomination today. There seems to be some evidence that Bunyan held somewhat to the doctrines of grace (Calvinism).

UPDATE: See comment section.

Pilgrim’s Progress was probably written in 1676, during a 6-month imprisonment in the one-room jail on the bridge over the River Ouse (he had some years before served 12 years in a different jail in England). Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678 and became immediately popular, making Bunyan the most famous nonconformist of his day.

At his death, an unknown contemporary wrote the following description of Bunyan’s character and person:

A Brief Character of Mr. John Bunyan

He appeared in countenance to be of a stern and rough temper, but in his conversation mild and affable; not given to loquacity or much discourse in company, unless some urgent occasion required it; observing never to boast of himself or his parts, but rather seem low in his own eyes, and submit himself to the judgment of others; abhorring lying and swearing, being just in all that lay in his power to his word, not seeming to revenge injuries, loving to reconcile differences and make friendship with all; he had a sharp quick eye, accomplished with an excellent discerning of persons, being of good judgment and quick wit. As for his person, he was tall of stature, strong boned, though not corpulent, somewhat of a ruddy face, with sparkling eyes, wearing his hair on his upper lip, after the old British fashion; his hair reddish, but in his latter days time had sprinkled it with grey; his nose well set, but not declining or bending, and his mouth moderate large; his forehead something high, and his habit always plain and modest. And thus we have impartially described the internal and external parts of a person whose death hath been much regretted ­ a person who had tried the smiles and frowns of time, not puffed up in prosperity nor shaken in adversity, always holding the golden mean.

In him at once did three great worthies shine
Historian, poet, and a choice divine:
Then let him rest in undisturbed dust,
Until the resurrection of the just.

Bunyan’s reference to the man in the iron cage of despair seems to be Bunyan’s understanding of Hebrews 6:4-6, or the person who has committed the unpardonable sin (one of the more difficult passages in the Bible). Rev. George Cheever, who was one of Bunyan’s biographers in the mid 19th century says, “Bunyan intended not to represent this man as actually beyond the reach of mercy, but to show the dreadful consequences of departing from God, and of being abandoned of him to the misery of unbelief and despair.” It is my opinion that we can’t accurately know what Bunyan meant by his description of the man in the iron cage of despair. I wouldn’t get hung up on this particularly difficult part of the book.


  1. D.R. Randle

    I think there is ample evidence to suggest that Bunyan was indeed a Calvinist. One major article of this would be John Owen’s fascination with Bunyan’s preaching, noting his own desire to be like Bunyan in having the “power of touching men’s hearts.” It is unlikely that Owen would have said such a thing given had Bunyan not shared his views on the Sovereignty of God.

    Additionally, Bunyan was Spurgeon’s favorite writer, reading Pilgrim’s Progress over 100 times during his life. Spurgeon seems to indicate that Bunyan shared his views of Calvinism as well.

    Finally, Bunyan was greatly influenced by the preaching of that day, which would have been saturated by the influence of John Owen and the Particular Baptists, thus suggesting that had he departed from this view, it would certainly have been spoken of by his contemporaries.

    John Piper has a great sermon on Bunyan, the transcript of which can be accessed here. Additionally, Bunyan’s work Grace Abounding To the Chief of Sinners might be worth reading to understand Bunyan’s take on Hebrews 6 and his view of apostasy and assurance.

    Bunyan is a great man of church history and was used of God to write works that still today affect millions. I am so thankful for the legacy of his preaching.



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