Full Title: Evangelical Devotionals and Bible Studies of The Pilgrim’s Progress: Fidelity or Bibliolatry?
Abstract: I examine contemporary evangelical Bible studies and devotionals devoted to John Bunyan’s 1678 spiritual classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. Focusing on treatments of Bunyan’s Vanity Fair sequence, I ask whether these resources demonstrate fidelity to the text and to Scripture or whether they are instead examples of bibliolatry. Implications for the design of Bible studies in the ministry of Christian education are offered following theological analysis of the biblical imagination required for such tasks.
EVANGELICAL DEVOTIONALS AND BIBLE STUDIES OF THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS: FIDELITY OR BIBLIOLATRY?
Christian Education Journal: Research on Educational Ministry: Volume: 17 issue: 2, page(s): 264-282
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Ford recognizes that Christians must reject worldly values (unspecified), and furthermore, is convinced, like Johnson, that persecution has already begun not only in far off countries but at home. This is indicated in the back of the booklet Leader’s answer guide to the question, ‘The pilgrims caused a commotion because they were different. Do Christians in present-day society cause a commotion, or are we largely ignored? Do you see attitudes changing? What kind of opposition do Christians face here and abroad?’ (Ford, 2016, p. 61) The answer prompt tells readers that ‘[s]ome cause a commotion by standing for truth and righteousness; many more do not. Persecution is rising in our land, and it is getting more difficult to sit on the fence as a cultural Christian. Biblical Christianity is under assault and so are its adherents. We see battles raging on many fronts, from theological to ideological to practical.’ (Ford, 2016, p. 164) In case this seems like a trigger for a particular kind of reader response to a culture war cue, irrespective of the good of searching Scripture, it is worth recording Ford’s suggested answer to the question of how Christian might today ‘Buy truth’ – ‘By doing things like reading and knowing God’s Word, persevering in faith, making integrity a priority, seeking the Spirit of Truth, refusing to compromise with the lies around us.’ (2016, p. 164) Read Christian’s conversations with Hopeful in PP and you will find the same emphases.
Analysis of the theological dynamics of fidelity
With such a divergence of treatments of the same textual episode from PP, how can fidelity be found? Let us consider first the shorter hermeneutic treatments of PP in the devotionals of Wilbert, Myra, and Johnson. These seem, at first glance, to evidently fail in their faithfulness to the text and intention of PP, signaled strongly by divergence from Bunyan’s chosen biblical texts. Indeed, for each of their chosen Scriptural emphases, Bunyan has much more strongly indicated passages that would warrant the commentary and texts the devotionals apply to Vanity Fair. This would be evidence of literary misappropriation. Wilbert’s commentary on 1 John 2:15-29 better belongs in reference to Faithful’s testimony to Christian of his own struggle against the enticements of an old man named Adam on Hill Difficulty. Adam offers him all three of his daughters in marriage who are named lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of the flesh. Bunyan makes this explicitly clear by giving his own marginal Bible reference for this episodes. (Bunyan, 2003, p.70) Likewise, Myra’s commentary on the love of money from 1 Timothy 6 would be more faithfully elicited by Christian and Hopeful’s encounters with Mr By-Ends’ friend Mr Mony-Love, and with Demas at Lucre Hill (Bunyan, 2003, p 99-105). The characters’ names and the focus on the temptation of the silver mine at the hill makes this the most obvious faithful narrative tie in for a devotional comment such as Myra offers. By contrast, Johnson’s chosen verses are never directly indicated by Bunyan, but in highlighting the hatred and opposition that Christian and Faithful encounter for their strange conduct as they do not seek worldly approval in the Fair, it could be argued that Johnson lands his focus most nearly to Bunyan’s own concern to emphasize the persecution of the righteous. The hermeneutic question that follows for Johnson is whether the Christendom model of state church latitude in religion and persecution of separatist Puritans is akin to the worldliness that he is anxious about in the opposition twenty-first century Christians face from a secular world order. Because on any simple parallel this comparison does not stand we are confronted here with Johnson, as with the previous two, with the question – is their deviation from Bunyan’s Scriptural warrant a form of spiritual misappropriation? Perhaps even a bibliolatrous deployment of a predetermined biblical barb irrespective of the Bunyan text purportedly being studied? Here the reader of the Vanity Fair episode has a responsibility in their response to the guides. Can Vanity Fair be read as a critique of materialism that contemporary Christians so need? If so, and I judge the answer to be positive, could Bunyan have used Myra’s verses? Yes. If it is read as about temptation and avoiding it, might he have appealed, with Wilbert, to 1 John 2? – Certainly. For he did, in both instances, elsewhere in his text. And if Johnson lands on a key interpretative insight about persecution in a common mind with Bunyan’s narrative drive, but with the support of Scriptural texts Bunyan does not cite, his instinct still seems faithful.
The hermeneutic question we are asking of these shorter devotionals, that applies, inter alia, to the longer Bible study resources, is to what extent a shared confidence in the authority of Scripture grounds analogous reading habits so as to allow the text of PP to refer a Christian back to Scripture in a way that is not question begging. By this I mean that a reader seeking to learn from Scripture ought not find dissonance in the juxtaposition of a narrative in relation to Scripture, but instead find that some recognizable element of the PP episode as she could read it has spurred the devotional choice. To this extent, faithfulness to a valid interpretation of Scripture for discipleship is here, in my judgment, more important than alignment in fidelity to Bunyan’s choice of explicit Bible references or even the likelihood of his original readers being drawn variously to concerns of materialism, temptation, or persecution with the same force or expression that our contemporary sources evidence. Discipleship in obedience to the authority of Scripture through PP rather than in obedience to the authority of PP is what is sought for the kind of faithfulness that counts in Christian ministry.
This study of Scripture through the lens of another work requires what we might call, this time with Alison Searle, biblical imagination. Searle’s 2008 study of the biblical authorization of a doctrine of imagination out of its language of the heart, and ‘its relational allegiance’ (p 206) to God and God’s world, informs her title The Eyes of your heart. Literary and Theological Trajectories of Imagining Biblically, drawing directly from Ephesians 1:18. Including a chapter on Bunyan (p 59-79), and notably affirming inerrancy (p 5-11), Searle’s burden is to commend imagination out of the rich textual narrative of Scripture with its mixed potency of metaphors, visions, images and allegories communicated in words. Searle would push Christians out of, and beyond Scripture, in their imagination through a theological hermeneutic shaped around the gospel of Jesus Christ that is both humbly crucified, boldly resurrection empowered, and eschatologically hopeful (p 203). ‘Ultimately, the Bible insists on a definition of imagination that is relational, accountable to God and others, shaped by a desire for transcendence, and committed to that which is other in empathetic love’(p 202). It is this kind of imagination, biblically authorized, that accompanies, but cannot accomplish the spiritual transformation that remains the Holy Spirit’s prerogative (p 205).
An unimaginative literalism in reading Vanity Fair would have contemporary readers simply checking their personal finances and budgeting on whether and how they spend their money in stores and shopping malls, succumbing to the law of ethics rather than the law of the Spirit of Christ. Worse, misconstruing Vanity’s Fair, as several visual adaptations do, readers would be compelled to direct their pious anxiety in opposition to fast-paced attractions at theme-park entertainment venues! Or vanity would be read as pride over appearance, so that temptation would be in the direction of self-beautification and enhancement of status among others. Rather than supposing that imagination spurred by word association in contemporary setting for Christians is biblical, greater resonance with a theological story arc is required. Both Gilkerson and Ford agree in seeing Vanity Fair as primarily an episode about persecution of faithful Christians in the public domain. Both evoke the ‘on trial for your faith’ question to ask study guide users if there would be ‘enough evidence to convict’ them of being Christians. Both reference key Scriptural passages that lead to this expectation from the New Testament.
Looking more closely at Gilkerson, and particularly Ford’s more extensive Bible study resources will demonstrate what biblical imagination in action can look like, and why it too might lead to a variety of non-competitive emphases and readings. We will find that faithfulness can indeed by variform, but that bibliolatry is chaotically both monochrome and endlessly refracted. Gilkerson’s biblical references are scattered among his commentary on particular section of PP that is the focus of the lesson in his guide. He invites readers, parenthetically, to make the connection between Bunyan’s story and scripture, so, for example, his comment that ‘The Fair is built as a distraction from seeking the kingdom first (see Matthew 6:33)’, or ‘Vanity Fair is modeled after Babylon (see Revelation 18:9-18).’ He invites his study users to pay particular attention to the following passages, where he asks participants, in the ‘Explore the Scriptures’ section to ‘[l]ook up the Bible passages from this section of The Pilgrim’s Progress and paraphrase them, putting their general meaning in your own words’ (Gilkerson, 2014, Lesson 9, n.p.). Romans 12:14, 20-21 is a passage that Bunyan alludes to explicitly as Christian and Faithful ‘bless those who curse’ them. Colossians 2:18-23 and Colossians 3:1-4 emphasize the danger of disqualifying pursuit of practices aligned to ‘elemental spirit of this world’ while commending setting one’s mind ‘on things above’ having died to the world and been raised with Christ. Galatians 5:20-21 is an interrupted list of sins whose pursuit disqualifies from inheriting the kingdom of God. 1 John 4:5-6 indicates that those of the world only listen to worldliness, whereas those who know God listen to John’s apostolic instruction, for the community of the church discerns the difference between ‘the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error’. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 holds out for the spiritually mature a wisdom that is not of this world, but of God. So Gilkerson’s study guide picks up on the miscommunications of the Vanity Fair episode as evidence of the stark spiritual opposition between those who belong to the Kingdom of God whose language cannot be understood (Bunyan, 2003, p 87) and those who are recognized by these pilgrims as indulging error in rejection of the kingdom and forfeiture of a celestial inheritance (Bunyan, 2003, p 94).
Gilkerson’s suggested readings bring out the oppositional theme of kingdom belonging, but what is lost is any coherence in handling the verses in the contexts of the various epistles, in the flow of God’s word literarily understood. The weakness of mining various Scriptures to support a flowing interpretation of enemies to Christianity in PP is that fitting Bunyan’s text becomes the interpretive priority. Arguably, much more biblical contextualization is need for the intended audience of teenagers to discern the rhetorical strategies of the discourses of 1 Corinthians in comparison with 1 John, and thus be able to discern the strength of Gilkerson’s study guide choices. I suggest that Romans 12, and Colossians 3 are choices most easily read in isolation and analogous to Bunyan’s intentions. The other passages are less easily isolated so that they call for greater maturity in handling God’s word truthfully than the guide equips its readers for. This might not be, perhaps, a straight collapse into bibliolatry, but its prospect is nearer in the presenting of scripture in proof texts beyond the explicative capacity of the study guide to properly inform its readers. So maybe this is bibliolatry as a wielding of Scripture to dazzle a young readership where more accessible biblical support might have been given or greater commentary situated the choices made. That is, the lack of exegetical clarity behind some Scripture choices leaves the guide user in the position of accepting the allocation of verses with bafflement as talismans of authority, rather than invitations to interpretive participation.
Gilkerson’s choices lay out his pastoral judgments bound up in studying the non-biblical text through quick appropriation of multiple biblical texts as support. But the hermeneutical lacunae into which study guide users might fall are not offset by any commentary or answer keys such that Scriptural interpretation is assumed to be self-evident in too simple a manner. The possibility of mis-readings of Scripture cannot be avoided in any Bible study framework, but it would seem that a study of Scripture(s) through the study of another text is more liable to that danger without sufficient caution. In Searle’s terms of faithful biblical imagination, a cruciform humility is lost if users have to assert agreement without insight, this also then displaces resurrection confidence, and closing the options to a singular interpretation eliminates the charity of eschatological patience of other readings.
How then does Ford fare in this regard? With a fuller study booklet as her disposal, running to 179 pages, Ford supplies tips and guidance along with her study questions. For example, while commending bible study itself in guiding readers to interpret Christian’s discoveries in the study of Palace Beautiful, she asks ‘Do you visit the Study with other believers often enough?’ Then, her ‘Progress Tip’ exhorts readers not to put on their spiritual armor individualistically - ‘we become most effective as we team up, learning to love, trust, and rely on the Spirit’s enablement together.’ (Ford, 2016, p 32) From Table 1 above, the last 7 references Ford gives are simply listed as ‘for Further Reflection’ (Ford, 2016, p 64), pointing to sojourning on earth and enduring persecution for the Kingdom of God – the two passages from Matthew giving substantial narrative material to ponder. The Vanity Fair study, Chapter 9, begins with the suggested Memory Verses for group participants – Revelation 3:11, and 2 Timothy 3:12. Christians are to hold firm and not let anyone steal their crown, while godly living in Christ will mean persecution. Revelation 3:11 is directly placed by Bunyan into Evangelist’s mouth as he warns Christian and Faithful of what lies ahead of them. For all that Ford draws out culture clash elements, we see that one of her initial questions frames discipleship peaceably rather than antagonistically with this opening statement: ‘We should seek to be peacemakers in this world, but it is no easy task.’ (Ford, 2016, p. 59) Furthermore, it is clear that the cost of discipleship is a key emphasis for Ford, not least by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a sidebar at the very top of the chapter. Her question 9 asks, ‘How does Evangelist’s exhortation related to persecution counter the beliefs of some Christians about lives that are blessed?’ (Ford, 2016, p 60) Vanity Fair offers material riches and other enticements to build reputation in the world counter to the word of God. Ford leads readers away from a prosperity gospel in this question, and further underlines this in question 15, observing that ‘we should be careful that things don’t own us but rather that we own them.’ She offers Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation of 1 John 2:15-17 as ‘A Helpful Exhortation’ sidebar – ‘Love not the world. Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. […] The world as all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out –[…]’ Ford, 2016, p 61) The chapter closes with another sidebar, ‘An appeal’, alerting readers to the plight of the persecuted global and domestic church, and exhorting prayer. (Ford, 2016, p 64)
Ford is deeply invested in guiding the disciples through her course, steering them to discern Scripture arightly. Greater explicit commentary framing the recommendation of apposite Bible references gives them deeper narrative context, even if her emphases on enduring persecution and withstanding temptation are similar to those inferred from the same narrative episode by Gilkerson. As a guide, Ford’s questions and her supporting exhortative materials, implicitly and explicitly, as we have seen, draw the reader into the participative good of ecclesial interpretation in prayer for the Spirit’s illumination. In her appended guide for group leaders, Ford suggest the following questions for group time that builds on the individual use of the study guide preceding the group meeting: ‘How is our culture like Vanity Fair? Discuss the following questions and the ramifications: Should we retreat to safety by compromising our witness? Or, should we resolve to press through in active service for Christ? Do you see examples of these positions today?’ …’How can the church be a source of strength to its members?’ (Ford 2016, p 147) Users may well differ from Ford or their fellow study group members in their application of PP and Scripture to their own lived contexts, but the open format of study questions is not so bare as to leave Scriptural interpretation in the wilderness of individual hunches. In my judgment, by giving users greater guidance in commentary, Ford does not close down a variform interpretive faithfulness to Scripture, but rather makes clear her justifications which, as a marker of cruciform humility, open up the room for disagreement via the open question format. Exploration of the application of her interpretation in response to the Scriptures she adduces is then also open to greater provisionality and local discernment.
Conclusion, with Implications for Educational Ministry
What is to be observed from this comparative sample of devotionals and bible studies? PP generates a diverse range of Scripturally inflected responses as the range of texts and the kind of response has been examined here. Firstly, dealing with the devotionals, it is noticeable that each author strikes out in different scriptural directions with no overlap of references, and only two repeating a Bunyan text indicated in his marginal references. Perennial areas of struggle for the Christian life of discipleship, money, sex, and power as falling under a broad rubric of worldliness stand out. But at least for Myra and Wilbert so too does an invitation to the reader to acknowledge difficulty and self-doubt in confronting these contemporary challenges. In any case, an appeal to Scripture that sustains prayerful growth toward answers rather than simple assertion of answers is far from bibliolatry. And the diversity of texts appealed to by each devotional writer around the Vanity Fair incident also opens up a range of biblical responses rather than determining that evangelical readers of PP will only ever cite one talismanic text.
Similar themes are developed in each of the bible studies, but noticeably appealing to the support of a much greater range of Scriptural references than Bunyan gives in his text. Is this then unfaithful adaptation, or misappropriation? And furthermore, is there evidence of disturbing bibliolatry in the way these texts are structured that would fall foul of Alison Searle’s critique in contrast to Bunyan’s use of Scripture?
Evangelical Bible study is much less uniform in its practice than outsiders might suppose. In the interpretative task of receiving Scripture’s relevance in the Spirit, one participant may discern an understanding or application in one direction with other seeing a different implication. My claim here is that Bible studies should be patient of this because, not despite, the confidence in Scripture’s authority. That is, as readers reflect on PP for their spiritual lives in the guiding framings of our authors, they are not looking for the final word on Scriptural reference and application. Rather they desire to allow possible prophetic construals to be tested out in their lives. These studies might become bibliolatrous if they were to deploy the Bible’s accepted authority to support some position that does not have theological-narrative support. Or the same outcome might arise accidentally if proof-texts mystify rather than clarifying claims made. They might become bibliolatrous if they deliberately read PP against lines of clear interpretation to support a position that is asserted to be biblical without proof or warrant, just to be accepted from the author by association with the spiritual classic.
What if studies strike what a critic might suppose to be a ‘conservative’ note? We have seen that different authors are anxious about different things to differing extents. Ford’s and Johnson’s are the most clearly concerned that their readers’ social contexts are already ones of persecution. Does the rhetoric of asking questions and providing answer prompts that support that position prove bibliolatry? If persecution is a clear scriptural theme for Christ-followers, it cannot be unbiblical to harken to it. Careful note should be taken that even if the authors assume that the readers will have in their minds the same list of persecutory incidents in their homeland, these are not specified. Again, this opens up the space for imaginative biblical Christian interpretation rather than closing it down bibliolatrously.
Theologically, Bible studies that see, through a text like PP, a range of discipleship issues, are of course composed from the author’s reading of their own cultural context, acknowledging the Bible’s, as then discerned through Bunyan’s. This is merely a complexifying of the ‘double listening’ to Scripture and to contemporary culture that evangelical stalwart John Stott commends (1992). If PP is the textual site for evangelical biblical reflection on what it means to follow Christ in the world towards to world to come, there is no sense in this collection of studies or devotionals that a close-minded univocity is expected in bible interpretation and application. It is indeed in the open-ended quality of study resources, with invitations to ponder, pray and converse, that openness of mind in interpreting and applying Scripture is modelled, even where there are answers at the back of the book. To this extent, however the publishers or authors line up on inerrancy, these evangelical resources fail to exhibit bibliolatry by design. It may be that less guarded choice of Scriptures in Gilkerson’s case veer this readers in that direction. More to the point, it could be that the bibliotlatry charge is just as likely motivated by interpretative difference or ideological disposition, in which case, it might be supposed that the position of being Christian against the world in holding to ‘Bible truth’ against persecutors is an instance of bibliolatrous sectarianism. But this shows the charge is not really about bibliolatry but something else to which the term stands as a proxy.
Can Bible studies or devotionals on PP be appropriately faithful adaptations? Bunyan wanted his travelers to turn continuously to Scripture. Given that he wrote and published a book for that pastoral goal we can assume that the commercial involvement of today’s publishers in Christian resource marketing implies no more or less a phenomena of damnable worldliness than for Bunyan. The extent to which all the authors point readers, through PP, to Scripture shows that, however they differ in their application to contemporary questions, these are consistent adaptations of that Bunyanesque intentionality. The memory of the work that Bunyan’s PP intended to effect – pondering the work of salvation in oneself among others in conversation under the guidance of the Bible – endures. One classic text engenders a multitude of evangelical responses, spawning still more in bible study participants and devotional readers. This plurality of response is not a failure of Christian discernment. Rather such is the way of Bible study participation until the advent of the Celestial city itself. Fidelity until that final day is not univocal but patient of the process of discernment as to which scriptures in present circumstances authorize faithful Christian discipleship.
Immediate implications from this concluding theological analysis redound to the task of creating bible study resources focused on non-biblical literary materials. These may be informally useful to ministries seeking to set up book clubs to enable the reading of popular contemporary fiction in an inclusive yet evangelistic context. More formal Bible study groups are also in view. The lessons apply, then, more broadly than in relation only to spiritual classics. Indeed, it could be that Bunyan is already so biblically explicit that the task is potentially both easier and harder – easier because he gives his own indications of bible texts to study, harder because his having done so may be seen to constrain valid, biblically imaginative responses to his text in the different circumstances of contemporary Christians. Nevertheless, we have seen that fidelity to Scripture will involve a commitment to a Scriptural narrative arc that is theologically articulate, while eschatologically open and thus humble in avoiding drawing overly strong lines from interpretation to requirements for thought and action in discipleship for contemporary readers. In other words, the story arcs of both Bible and literary text may elicit a bounded plurality of imaginative responses as we have seen in the uses our sources have made of PP. At the same time, these resources, in their plurality and explicit invitation of reader response through the formal use of questions and prompts for prayer, are open to the Spirit’s work of conviction and transformation in the local setting of the study user(s). To this end, they deliberately and wisely eschew overinterpretation and imposition of closed meaning. Given the Bible’s, and Bunyan’s, and contemporary resource authors’ conviction that the Christian life involves opposition and suffering, so long as the resources do not overprescribe their own particular detailed account of what this opposition must be, prompts to consider, recognize and pray through a spiritual battle against opposition does not become bibliolatry – that is, the co-option of the task of scriptural imagination to any one social, ethical, political or economic judgment or policy or hobbyhorse. In examining the practice and the theology of biblically imaginative study of non-biblical texts, in this case, PP, we find that open questions, clear Scriptural orientation, plausible literary and spiritual sensibility, and evident textual invitation of the Spirit’s transformative work through prayer, reflection and churchly discussion are hallmarks of ministry resources that avoid bibliolatry. Where these elements are less fully fleshed out, the invitation to multiple scriptures in the bible study format is in danger of under resourcing this responsible double hearing of Scripture and literary text, allowing interpretive slippage from accountable Scripture shaped reading of, in this case, PP. The PP interpreter writing the guide ends up taking Scripture hostage and constraining the resource user’s comprehension of the Bible for the sake of fitting references to the story. Where the Bible becomes, even accidentally, the text that must be fitted to the contours of another text’s interpretation, interpreters are invited into a more chaotic individualism of response led by intellect or guess-work rather than open to the Spirit. Precisely where the controlling narrative is not the sequential exposition of Scripture but some other, even a spiritual classic like PP, the danger of bibliolatry lurks.
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