Were a short list composed of the greatest works ever written by man outside the Bible, certainly The Pilgrim’s Progress by the uneducated Baptist John Bunyan should be on that list. His mind dripped Scripture and Christian’s journey to the Celestial City has helped a great many people in the narrow way.
Yet Bunyan’s The Holy War is superior.
The holy war is the conquering of the beautiful town of Mansoul first by the wicked giant Diabolos and secondly by the golden prince Emanuel. The story follows six turns of the plot.
1. Diabolos conquers the town of Mansoul.
2. Emmanuel takes it back.
3. The town falls back into sin.
4. Diabolos takes it again.
5. Emmanuel takes it back.
6. Diabolos tries twice more and fails.
Covering the Whole Bible
If you do not know the Bible, the story will surprise you at every turn, and if you know the Scripture it may surprise you even more so. How can it surprise a Bible-reader? Bunyan secures verses from at least 54 books of the Bible turning them to his purpose of telling the story of redemption. Even after reading it three times, I am constantly amazed at how many doctrines and verses the author calls into service. The image of God is found in Mansoul’s Heart Castle. The Trinity is reflected by King Shaddai, His Son Prince Emanuel, and the Lord High Secretary who fully knows the minds of the King and His Son. The Covenant of Redemption is found in several places as well as total depravity, the glory of grace, a definition of effectual calling, the glory of the resurrected body, and nearly every other doctrine in Scripture.
The story is practically a systematic theology wrapped in a memorable story with fascinating characters. This is the first reason that The Holy War surpasses The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Secondly, the Bible’s basic plot is terribly intense, and no other earthly metaphor captures that earnest, grim, desperate, hopeful tone as well as war. Jesus compares the Christian life to farming (Matt. 13:3-9), building (Luke 14:28-30), and taking a journey (Matt. 7:13-14). Paul agrees with these and even adds marriage (Eph. 5:22-32). But more commonly found in Scripture is the picture of a war.
- Luke 14:31 Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle…
- 1 Tim. 1:18 Fight the good fight… (Also 2 Cor. 10:4; 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7)
- 2 Tim. 2:3 Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
Most of the books of Joshua and Judges are accounts of war, and these were given to us as our examples. Imprecatory psalms such as 55, 58, 69, 109, and 137 are written to produce in the Christian a warlike mood.
But even more so than these explicit references to war or fighting are the main plot lines of Scripture. Satan is a lion on the prowl hunting for our souls. His thousands or millions of demons are our desperate enemies. They are diabolical fiends with implacable hatred and immense power. The end of all those who oppose Jesus Christ is a lake of fire and brimstone for all eternity.
In The Holy War Bunyan writes about soldiers being “brained” and taking great wounds. He has townspeople lying dead in the streets. Men fight with bandages if by any means they might save their families. Nearly all of these intense lines are taken from different verses in the prophets.
The sobriety of this story calls up manliness that approaches the reality, and that effect on the reader is more palpable here than in Christian’s dangerous journey.
The Lord Jesus Christ
Thirdly, Prince Emanuel is the main character of the Bible and the main character of The Holy War. It is not surprising to hear that someone might weep while reading for a new kindling of love to Jesus Christ in this story. He is called the Golden Prince. His cross work is mentioned. His offices are the goal of the narrative. When He arrives to defeat Diabolos your heartbeat quickens. His speech that closes the book is like the grand finale of fire works. Bunyan’s presentation of the Lord Jesus matches for beauty The Letters of Samuel Rutherford or The Poems of Isaac Watts.
Perhaps there is an author who can paint our Savior’s Face with more lively colors, but if there is, I haven’t seen the portrait. And to the point of this review, The Holy War is more fitting to this pleasing task than The Pilgrim’s Progress.
- The Holy War is a systematic theology covering nearly every doctrine of the Bible.
- It captures the intensity of New Testament salvation.
- Our dear Lord Jesus is magnified delightfully.
In these three ways, this book surpasses the other better known allegory and maybe all other books written merely by men.
“For here lay the excellent wisdom of him that builded Mansoul, that the walls could never be broken down, nor hurt, by the most mighty adverse potentate, unless the towns-men gave consent thereto.” 9 compare with page 96, “But after three or four notable charges by the Prince, and his noble captains, Eargate was broken open, and the bars and bolts wherewith it was used to be fast shut up against the Prince, was broken into a thousand pieces.”
Captain Conviction says to the town: “Consider if it be not amazing grace that Shaddai should so humble himself as he doth. … Has he that need of you, that we are sure you have of him?” 51
“Mr. Carnal Security did after all this mercy bestowed on this corporation, bring the town of Mansoul into great and grievous slavery and bondage.” 163
Mr. Godly fear said, “Though several of their petitions should be answered with nought but silence or rebuke: For it is the way of the wise Shaddai to make men wait and to exercise patience and it should be the way of them in want, to be willing to stay his leisure.” 174
“Then they took courage, and sent again, and again, and again, and again; for there was not now one day, nor an hour that went over Mansoul’s head, wherein a man might not have met upon the road one or other riding post, sounding the horn from Mansoul to the Court of the King Shaddai.” 174
Prince Emanuel: “Nothing can hurt thee but sin; nothing can grieve me but sin; nothing can make thee base before thy foes but sin: Take heed of sin, my Mansoul.” 264
“And dost thou know why I at first, and do still suffer Diabolonians to dwell in thy walls, O Mansoul? It is to keep thee wakening, to try thy love, to make thee watchful, and to cause thee yet to prize my noble captains, their soldiers, and my mercy.” 265