Bite-Size Bunyan: Some Gospel Truths Opened (1656)
June 8, 2017
The purpose of this series, “Bite-Size Bunyan,” is to share John Bunyan’s writings in summary form. Most Christians know such works as The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), The Holy War (1682), and Grace Abounding (1666), but what about the foundational Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (1659) or the antithesis to the Pilgrim’s Progress called The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680)? My hope (in different installations and not all at once!) is to make these publications more accessible.
Our first “bite” concerns Bunyan’s first official writing, Some Gospel Truths Opened According to the Scriptures (1656), written at the tender age of 28 yet with a clear grasp of Reformation theology and the need to defend it from error. It arose out of earlier public debate with the Quakers or “Society of Friends,” a prominent sect in Bunyan’s Bedfordshire due to the toleration under the Cromwellian regime. The recently converted Bunyan had already become a popular lay preacher and one opposed by groups such as the Quakers who rejected his biblical orthodoxy.
The Quaker movement was founded (1647) by George Fox who fled the vanities of organized religion to embrace the transforming light of the Christ within. Within this scheme, Christ teaches people directly through the Spirit and apart from the Scriptures as they strive for purity and the realization of their salvation. This subjective focus pushed aside outward forms of religion (e.g. tithes and sacraments) and even rebelled against social order (e.g. customary etiquette). The Quakers (named for the trembling experienced during spiritual visitations) at times became violent as seen in the disruption of other groups’ worship services. Beginning with Cromwell but especially during Charles II’s Restoration, they faced severe persecution.
Bunyan opposed them with his voice and pen informed by Scripture. More than simply attacking the Quakers, his book primarily defends orthodox Christology and soteriology. Still, without question, Bunyan targets the Quakers as seen in his frequent mention of them by name, his reference to their teachings, and his “Questions to the Quakers” at the very end of the book. These seven questions or “a few queries to those possessed with a spirit of delusion in this generation,” show knowledge of their major doctrines and what he regarded as a serious departure from the gospel.
In general, Bunyan deals with Quaker errors on Scripture, Christ, and salvation. For example, he mentions how the devil distorts the gospel of salvation in Christ by a “spirit of delusion,” which by pretending “some higher light” works upon the soul to “hold forth its new gospel; shewing the soul a new Christ, and new scriptures.” Most importantly, Bunyan in the work focuses on the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ. He literally and historically must be the Christ born of Mary, crucified, resurrected, ascended, seated, and coming again. In this way, the spiritualized and ahistorical “new and false Christ” of the Quakers must be opposed: “a Christ crucified within, dead within, risen again within, and ascended within, in opposition to the Son of Mary, who was crucified without, dead without, risen again without, and ascended in a cloud away from his disciples into heaven without them (Acts 1:9-11).”
Reminiscent of the ancient docetic heresy, Quaker theology eradicated the humanity of Christ. In fact, Scriptural mention of the body of Christ, as Bunyan attests, they saw as referring to “no other body but his church.” The most they could say was that Jesus became attached to a human body not truly a part of him. With John 1:9 in hand, they focused on Christ spiritually as “the true Light, which lighteth every man,” and to which every man must respond for the transformational realization of salvation. Thus, they swept aside the objective and historical elements of the Christian faith: the birth, life, death, ascension, intercession, and second coming of Jesus Christ. They trample rather than start with the grand “indicatives” (realities to embrace) to get to the “imperatives” (things to do) and, in the process, reject salvation by free grace alone and justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ.
As in public debate, the Quakers would not sit in silence to such a book. So, in our second “bite,” we will turn to the response of Quaker Edward Burrough and (primarily) Bunyan’s to him.