Archive Eric Parker Reformed Irenicism

Reformed Allegory? Musculus on the Spit & Mud of Wisdom

The Reformers, as humanists with a concern for the plain meaning of texts, consistently opposed the interpretive license of Medieval exegetes, who often glossed over the literal, grammatical, and historical context of biblical passages in order to present a moral, spiritual, or symbolic lesson. This posture of opposition should not, however, be stressed to the extreme, as if the Reformers did not see hidden meaning in some of the historical activities of Israel, of Jesus, and of the church. Craig Farmer tells of one passage from Wolfgang Musculus in which the Reformer discovers such hidden meaning.1 The passage occurs in Musculus’s commentary on the Gospel of John, ch. 9, where Jesus heals a blind man by instructing him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. According to Farmer, “Musculus demonstrates a willingness – rare among Reformed commentators – to include and occasionally reinterpret traditional allegories, although he usually terms them ‘images’ or ‘mystical readings.’”2 The resort to a mystical reading of the text arises when more details are given than seem necessary or when certain peculiar actions are recounted. For example, why would Jesus place mud and spit upon the man’s eyes when he could have healed him instantaneously? Musculus supplies two readings of this text to unveil the hidden mystery. The second comes from Augustine and explains the mud and spit as an image of the humanity and divinity of Christ, an interpretation that Musculus finds plausible. The first, and most plausible in his opinion, I will allow him to explain for himself. The following is my translation of the passage from his Commentarii in Evangelium Johannis of 1554:

I shall explain, without prejudice for anything, what seems right to me, that [this passage] includes a mystery.  If we look at the blindness of the Scribes and Pharisees, of whom this blind man has born the image, you will not have strayed, if the eyes of the blind man smeared [illitum] by the spit and earthly mud, you understand human and earthly wisdom, by which unfaithful minds are completely blinded, with the result that they do not see the truth of God, and by means of the water of Siloam you understand the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is by faith in Christ sent from the Father. The result is that this act may be mystically signified, that the truth of God cannot be discerned by the eyes of the mind, unless the mud of human wisdom (because of which they have forgotten [the truth of God]) is washed away by the water of the Son of God who was sent. Therefore, how insane are those who pile up this earthly mud for themselves with the highest devotion and smear it over the eyes of their mind, as if from this perspective they might come to be more sharp-sighted for the sake of understanding the truth of Christ? They search after this mud with great expense out of the books of the philosophers, from whence they are more thoroughly blinded than illuminated. May the Lord grant that they might go to the pool of Siloam, and wash the eyes of their mind there, and cleanse [repurgent] them from the mud of earthly wisdom. 3

Jesus’ curious behavior with regard to the blind man seems to Musculus to point to a hidden meaning, namely, that Jesus had come to remove the blindness caused by unfaithfulness to God and devotion to human wisdom. The spit of Christ is the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit, which is perhaps why Musculus chooses the term “illinire” which means both “to smear” and “to anoint” to describe the placement of the spit and mud upon the blind man’s face. A question still remains, however, with regard to this incident. Why did Jesus tell the man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam when he could have healed him instantly? Musculus responds:

He could have immediately enlightened [his eyes] without him [doing] any work; but God is inclined to dispense grace to mortals by means of divine providence in such a way that they also apply some works to it. Not that Christ cannot do a work within us and perfect the work of his own Father without our study and work, but [he works within us] that he might employ us in our faith and experience of divine virtue, in order that we might be coworkers with God.4

Is this Reformed allegory, then? What else would it be? It is a recognition of deeper meaning where the literal meaning leaves certain details unanswered. For Musculus, this sort of “mystical” reading is not a rejection of the literal but is itself grounded in the grammar and the historical context of the text, that is, the situation, and the symbols, presented by the text itself. It is a recognition that Jesus is much more than a literal king (though he is that as well) and that his word is much more than a literal message (though it is certainly that too).

  1. Donald McKim ed., Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, 768.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Musculus, Commentarii in Evangelium Johannis, (Basil: Hervagius, 1554), 577.
  4. Ibid.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.