Today in 1678 John Bunyan brought out the first version of the Pilgrim’s Progress. He did make some revisions after that first edition, but the book was recognizably itself as soon as it was published.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, famously sophisticated, called this simple book “incomparably the best Summa Theologicae Evangelicae ever produced by a writer not miraculously inspired.” It’s a phrase worth pondering: The rough little allegory about following the road to the Celestial City is a summary of gospel theology, a synthesis of evangelical teaching, a Summa Theologicae Evangelicae. And it’s the best one ever written by anybody not directly inspired by God, according to Coleridge!
He goes on: “It is composed in the lowest style of English, without slang or false grammar. If you were to polish it, you would at once destroy the reality of the vision… This wonderful book is one of the few books which may be read repeatedly, at different times, and each time with a new and different pleasure. I read it once as a theologian, and let me assure you that there is great theological acument in the work; once with devotional feeling; and once as a poet. I could not have believed beforehand that Calvinism could be painted in such exquisitely delightful colors.”
In 1684, Bunyan brought out part II, in which Christiana and her companions retrace Christian’s path to the City. In some ways, the purest form of Bunyan’s vision is contained in part I: The pilgrim striking out on his own, seeking fellowship along the lonely way. He’s never quite alone: there are Faithful, Hopeful, Evangelist, Greatheart, and others, talking and conferencing together all the time. But the individual fortitude required of Christian in Part I is what has stuck with readers through the years.
On the other hand, Part II has some of the best material in the whole work, and balances out some of Part I’s necessary omissions. It turns out Bunyan is well aware that women and children can be disciples of Christ! The whole thing should definitely be read together, Part I and Part II. At a pinch, for a survey class, you could read just Part I, I suppose. (In our great books program at Torrey Honors Institute, we assign the whole thing in the best current edition).