The Artistry of John Bunyan’s Sermons -- By: E. Beatrice Batson

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 38:2 (Winter 1976)
Article: The Artistry of John Bunyan’s Sermons
Author: E. Beatrice Batson

The Artistry of John Bunyan’s Sermons

E. Beatrice Batson

In his sermons John Bunyan saw his responsibility as transmitting the urgent recognition of God’s judgment and grace which radiates from the Bible, and, correspondingly, to find unacceptable any interpretation which built a dichotomy between literal and spiritual meaning. He never lost sight of what he believed the Bible literally said, what it meant, and how its teaching applied to individual lives.

Several centuries before John Bunyan’s era, preachers and biblical commentators had studied and taught Scripture on four levels; the literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. The literal simply entails the recapitulation of the biblical passage under discussion; the allegorical observes the manner in which the text points to general truths pertaining to humanity as a whole; the tropological expounds the moral lessons (often the standards of conduct) to be derived from the text; and the anagogical proclaims the awareness of and insistence upon a divine source as well as the spiritual or ultimate significance of the passage. A working example of this fourfold procedure might be applied to Psalm 114, a biblical passage in which as a warrant for his own practice in the Divine Comedy, Dante professed to discover the four levels:

When Israel went forth out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language;
Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
The sea saw it and fled; the Jordan was driven back.
The mountains skipped like rams, the little hills like lambs.
What aileth thee, O thou sea, that thou fleest?
Thou Jordan, that thou turnest back?
Ye mountains, that ye skip like rams; ye little hills, like lambs?
Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,

who turned the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a fountain of waters.1

Taking this psalm as the basis for his sermon, a preacher could begin by a literal explanation of the song in its historical context, the exodus of the Hebrew people from the strange land of Egypt to the sanctuary they found in Israel. He could then proceed to the allegorization by suggesting that the exodus stands for any individual or any land that leaves estrangement and seeks refuge. The tropological or moral lesson is that God demands reverence from man and nations, and the anagogical expounds the spiritual truth that God provides in miraculous ways for those who reverence and obey him.

The structure of Bunyan’s sermons shows no strict adherence to th...

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