Monday, August 23, 2010

Wilson's Recent Pilgrim's Progress Post

Douglas Wilson has recently posted some quotes from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. You can read Wilson's post for the context. Or will you get all the context? I think there's something missing there. The Pilgrim's Progress quote, in its entirety, reads thus:

TALK. That is it that I said; for to talk of such things is most profitable; for by so doing, a man may get knowledge of many things; as of the vanity of earthly things, and the benefit of things above. Thus, in general, but more particularly by this, a man may learn the necessity of the new birth, the insufficiency of our works, the need of Christ's righteousness, &c. Besides, by this a man may learn, by talk, what it is to repent, to believe, to pray, to suffer, or the like; by this also a man may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the gospel, to his own comfort. Further, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions, to vindicate the truth, and also to instruct the ignorant.

FAITH. All this is true, and glad am I to hear these things from you.

TALK. Alas! the want of this is the cause why so few understand the need of faith, and the necessity of a work of grace in their soul, in order to eternal life; but ignorantly live in the works of the law, by which a man can by no means obtain the kingdom of heaven.

FAITH. But, by your leave, heavenly knowledge of these is the gift of God; no man attaineth to them by human industry, or only by the talk of them.

TALK. All this I know very well; for a man can receive nothing, except it be given him from Heaven; all is of grace, not of works. I could give you a hundred scriptures for the confirmation of this.

FAITH. Well, then, said Faithful, what is that one thing that we shall at this time found our discourse upon?

Here I have quoted the Project Gutenberg version.

If you compare this full quotation with Wilson's quote, I think it's true that the missing parts are rather important, especially Faithful's affirmation of what Talkative says that is true. Isn't it true that non-believers can get some things right? They can say truth? Common grace, I think they call it.

I'm not an English major (although I love literature, as evidenced by Cucumberland Island). But it does seem to me as if the missing parts greatly change the meaning of the passage. In fact, my impression of the passage is that Faithful is affirming everything Talkative says here, while providing a clarification that Talkative appears to agree with. Faithful does not appear to disagree with what Talkative is saying.

So the lesson here isn't that what Talkative says is wrong. The lesson here is that even unbelievers (Talkative, it becomes clear later on, is no believer) can get portions of theology correct. Another example of this is a professor of whom my father heard, who was an Orthodox Jew. He was, oddly enough, teaching in Romans. And he went point-by-point down the tenets of Reformed theology. One of his students raised his hand and asked him whether he believed in any of this stuff. "No," replied the professor, "But that's what the text says."

The fact that Talkative doesn't live out this doctrine doesn't mean the doctrine is incorrect. It means that that critical link connecting doctrine and practice was missing in Talkative's life.

I'm wondering if one possible implication that Wilson is trying to make is that confessionals tend to spout off on the doctrine, but fail to live it out. Sadly, that's probably true in far too many cases. But, if you reason that, as a consequence, the doctrine that confessionals believe is wrong, you'd have just committed the ad hominem fallacy. I don't recommend that you go there!

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