John Bunyan and biblical metaphors

I attended a useful lecture last night on The Forgotten John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress is a Christian classic. The adjective ‘Forgotten’ in the title referred not so much to Bunyan himself but in part to Bunyan’s language, imagination and use of metaphors, which were controversial in 17th-century British Christianity.

Pilgrim’s Progress is sometimes described as the first novel, but this is not accurate because Don Quixote predates it, nor is it the first English novel because it is not a novel at all but a spiritual allegory that uses biblical metaphors.

I remember reading Bunyan’s poetry as a teenager, and I was so enthralled with it that I was annoyed with my secondary-school English teachers who served up less-interesting poetry – such as John Betjeman’s Miss J. Hunter Dunn and his washing his face in a bird-bath in a Surrey Garden! which was enough to put me off modern poetry at the time.

However, my interest was rescued by John Bunyan and the Scottish metrical Psalms, a recollection that takes me back to my early spiritual pilgrimage.

Early memories

Today would have been my deceased brother Andrew’s birthday. It was he who suggested that I should attend evangelical preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was listening to such sermons about Jesus’ use of parables in His teaching that taught me more effectively than my schooling about the use of metaphors. It was on Andrew’s birthday six years ago today that I blogged on the important subject of ‘exegesis and eisegesis’.

John Bunyan’s use of allegory and metaphor in Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War made enthralling reading in my teenage years. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the 19th-century ‘prince of preachers’ in London, is said to have read Pilgrim’s Progress more than one hundred times. How appropriate that Bunyan was the 17th-century ‘prince of preachers’.

Metaphors and allegories

The Bible uses metaphors and allegories. Typology is the study of biblical metaphors concerning the scheme of salvation. However, some people have used metaphors to unwarrantably develop code exegesis as if the Bible has hidden meanings to be broken by a code. This mistake also leads to allegorical preaching that impresses the impressionable, and to typology that can strain credulity.

Exegesis and imagination

A good exegete must develop their imagination. Scripture gives a narrative that requires imagination to reconstruct the scene. Difficult passages need even more imagination in order to determine the scene and to consider the possible options. For lack of imagination, many wrong interpretations have been applied to Scripture ‘because it must mean’ such and such, whereas more imagination would have suggested other possibilities. The Masoretes were guilty of lack of imagination as well as lack of understanding in some of their Qere readings in the Hebrew Scripture.

All in all, a student of Scripture will learn many exegetical principles and develop a facility in the use of metaphor and of their imagination that will improve their understanding and teach them a Christian character. The people listened gladly to Jesus, to John Bunyan and to Charles Hadden Spurgeon. Now you may follow in their steps by developing your Christian conversation.


14 Jan 2014: an index to exegetical mistakes.

26 Aug 2015: Metaphors and exegesis.

15 Jan 2016: Biblical metaphors.

15 Jan 2020: Puritan Pastors and the Art of Sermon Illustration, John M. Brentnall.

Nov 2020: The Forgotten John Bunyan, published in The Free Presbyterian Magazine Nov-Dec 2020.

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