The feel of dirt mattered to Wolfgang Musculus. Common dust and clay and grass accompanied many of his formative experiences like sod stuck to a child’s knee. In late 1527, he left the Benedictine monastery where he had spent his youth. From Lixheim, Alsace, above the northern foothills of the Vosges Mountains and the source of the Moselle River where Riesling grapes ripen, he moved southeast, carrying, besides a handful of coins, his own bed to spread on a patch of bare earth that had been smoothed and packed firm.
When Musculus reached Strasbourg, he took up temporary residence in the house of Theobald Nigri, an evangelical preacher in the city. Musculus was gifted and eager to help the Reformation. For years, he had been reading Luther—that earthiest of Reformers—so much that his Benedictine brothers affectionately called him their “Lutheran monk.” In 1518, he had even openly received packets of Luther’s books at the monastery. But Musculus had neither university training nor as yet a firm grasp on Greek or Hebrew. Strasbourg already seemed packed with Catholics, evangelicals, and Anabaptists alike—and he also struggled with personal doubts, wondering whether he had abandoned the monastery’s solid ground only for God to abandon him.
After arriving in Strasbourg, Musculus married his former prior’s niece, who had traveled with him from Lixheim as his fiancée. Soon, she was pregnant and Musculus signed up for the only employment he could find: digging ditches. Strasbourg’s magistrates intended to strengthen the city fortifications and were actively recruiting men for the back-breaking toil of scraping, gouging, carrying dirt, and hauling building supplies. The night before his first day on the job, Musculus visited the excavation site. When he returned to the house of his landlord, Nigri, he was greeted with a note. Martin Bucer, the great Strasbourg Reformer, was beckoning him to the city cathedral—a structure that seemed to extend from terra firma into the clouds. There, Musculus met Bucer, who introduced him to the powerful burgher Jacob Sturm.
On Bucer and Sturm’s recommendation, Musculus received a temporary appointment as preacher to a rural parish church. Every Saturday for months, Musculus walked twelve miles to the village of Dorlitzheim, the dirt path dignified into a thoroughfare. He preached on Saturday evening, three times on Sunday, and returned to Strasbourg on Monday. It was not an easy call. Some years before, a gardener from the city had come preaching the evangelical gospel to the congregation. When the gardener fixated on Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:13—“Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots”—the peasants hanged the town priest. Yet Musculus persisted. Perhaps it was still better than digging ditches.
In the city, Musculus’s situation began to improve. He moved in with Bucer and worked as his personal secretary. He studied Bucer’s prodigious writings and enjoyed access to his large library—mountains of material to fill gaps and repair divots in his theological learning. Before long, he found more co-laborers —Wolfgang Capito and Matthäus Zell—to aid in the church’s reform. For his efforts, Musculus reaped a great harvest. He soon surfaced as a leading Protestant Reformer in Augsburg, where he revised his biblical languages and added Arabic for good measure; he then served as professor of theology in Bern and as an influential ecclesiastical adviser.
Yet Musculus won greater praise for his work as a biblical exegete and theologian, tending the Bible’s own teeming acreage for cultivating doctrine and life. He published fruitful commentaries on Matthew (1544), John (1545), the Psalms (1550), the Decalogue (1553), Genesis (1554), Romans (1555), Isaiah (1557), 1 and 2 Corinthians (1559), Galatians and Ephesians (1561), and Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy (1564)—the last of which he was at work on when he succumbed to fever and returned to dust a few days before his sixty-sixth birthday.
Musculus’s books reveal how deeply Reformation Protestants engaged with the entire exegetical tradition: Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Peter Lombard, Hugh of St. Cher, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra, Denis the Carthusian, Erasmus of Rotterdam, John Major, Philip Melanchthon, and countless more members of the church catholic who left rich, forested legacies from which to prune and cull. Throughout Europe, Musculus found a wide and receptive audience stretching from German East Frisia to Little Poland, from Francophone Neuchâtel to John Knox’s Scotland. John Calvin, in the preface to his own Psalms commentary, ranked Musculus with Bucer as the best Psalms interpreter of the era, who “by his diligence and industry has earned no small praise in the judgment of good men.”
As a theologian, Musculus left a lasting imprint in his Loci communes sacrae theologiae (Commonplaces of Sacred Theology), a massive work of systematic theology first published in 1560, revised the next year, and soon translated into English and French. He wrote it over the course of a decade while honing his abilities as a biblical exegete. The authorities in Bern, where he then taught, commissioned the text to serve as a scholastic manual of theology—a handbook for students. Musculus purposefully adopted a pastoral and biblical-theological approach to this academic task. With pick and shovel, Musculus had attended carefully to pericopes concerning the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants in his commentary on Genesis, and now he shaped that exegetical yield into doctrine in his Loci communes.
What makes his Loci communes unique is that it was, among other things, the first Reformed system in which the “covenant” received its own distinct chapter. True, Musculus did not treat the covenant idea as an organizing principle for his theology or as the Scripture-generated architectonic structure of Reformed thought—as, for example, the Westminster divines later confessed in 1646. But Musculus did carve out a clear place for covenant as a particular, well-cultivated topic or doctrine within his system. He also used the doctrine as a kind of method for navigating the relations between various topics: Abraham, Moses, and Christ; the Old and New Testament; justice and grace; election and reprobation. Musculus conceived of two kinds of covenant, or what he called more precisely the “twofold covenant of God,” made up of “general” and “special” aspects. He described the general covenant as that which God “fixed with the entire fabric of the world, and all those who inhabit it, so beasts as well as men, also with day and night, winter and summer, cold and heat, planting and harvest, etc.” Musculus connected this general covenant with creation and with God’s preservation of the world after the flood. Because it involved the regular order of nature, it could be called “earthly and temporal.”
Next, Musculus explained the special covenant: While the general covenant of creation “does not continue beyond the state of this world which at last shall be destroyed,” the special covenant is “everlasting.” For, he argued, God has “condescended to ratify it with the elect and believers.” This covenant is special because it concerns “all the elect and believing in Christ . . . the true seed of Abraham and children of the promise.” Musculus referred to the new name given to Abraham in Genesis 17, as well as to Romans 9 and Galatians 3. He also pointed the reader back to “the beginning” of redemption—that is, when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam in Genesis 3:15. In this special covenant, God made the promise “I will be God to you and to your seed after you,” and so God committed himself not only as creator “but also as savior.” Musculus moved from creation to redemption, from perpetual planting and harvest to the promise of the Seed.
Under Musculus, the twofold doctrine of the covenant began to sprout, even if his general covenant was not identical with the more fully developed doctrine of the covenant of works. Strikingly, though, Musculus also started to describe, if not fully expound, the law-gospel distinction within a covenantal framework as one of the topics that followed his presentation of covenant: “The law warns, urges, and curses; the gospel preaches grace and remission of sins to those who believe.” In this regard, he sits among a range of formative theologians who provided essential mineral elements to the Reformed tradition, including Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, Andreas Hyperius, and Robert Rollock.
Plenty of evidence suggests that Musculus amply contributed both to Reformation exegesis and to the development of covenant theology at a critical juncture for Protestantism. He died in Bern in 1563, one year prior to Calvin in Geneva and one year after Peter Martyr Vermigli in Zurich. Thomas Cranmer long tried in vain to recruit Musculus to teaching posts in London, Canterbury, and Cambridge. Other invitations came from Augsburg, Strasbourg, Marburg, Neuberg an der Donau in Bavaria, and Poland. Yet when the University of Heidelberg offered Musculus a post in theology, he replied, haltingly humble and earthy to the end: “I am a man educated in a monastery, and not distinguished with the degree of a Master, still less of a Doctor.” A far cry from a ditch digger, he ended up doing the work of the Lord in the trenches nevertheless.
The title recognizes a debt to John Updike, “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car,” The New Yorker, December 16, 1961.Back
Biographical material here and throughout is drawn from Musculus’s son, Abraham Musculus, “Historia Vitae et Obitus Clarissimi Theologi D. Wolfgangi Musculi Dusani, S. Litterarum apud Bernates professoris,” in ΣΥΝΟΨΕ festalium concioncum, authore D. Wolfgago Musculo Dusano, eiusdem vita, obitus, erudita carmina (Basel, 1595); in comparison with Reinhard Bodenmann, Wolfgang Musculus (1497–1563), Destin d’un autodidacte lorrain au siècle des Réformes (Geneva: Droz, 2000); and Wolfgang Musculus (1497–1563) und die oberdeutsche Reformation, ed. Rudolf Dellsperger et al. (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997).Back
Paul Romane-Musculus, “Catalogue des oeuvres imprimées du théologien Wolfgang Musculus,” Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 43 (1963): 260–78.Back
See Craig S. Farmer, The Gospel of John in the Sixteenth Century: The Johannine Exegesis of Wolfgang Musculus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).Back
John Calvin, In Librum Psalmorum Commentarius, in Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss, 59 vols. (Brunswick: Schwetschke, 1863–1900), 31:13. See also Herman J. Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 25n17; Marc van Wijnkoop Lüthi, “Druckwerkeverzeichnis des Wolfgang Musculus,” in Wolfgang Musculus (1497–1563) und die oberdeutsche Reformation, ed. Rudolf Dellsperger et al. (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997), 379–85.Back
Herman Selderhuis, “Die Loci Communes des Wolfgang Musculus: Reformierte Dogmatik anno 1560,” in Wolfgang Musculus (1497–1563) und die oberdeutsche Reformation, 311–30.Back
Wolfgang Musculus, “De foedere ac testamento Dei,” Loci communes in usus sacrae Theologiae candidatorum parati (Basel, 1564), §14, 141–46.Back
Jordan J. Ballor, Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Göttingen: Vandenhock & Ruprecht, 2012), 58.Back
In support, Musculus referred to Genesis 8 and 9 and Jeremiah 33. Musculus, Loci communes, §14, 142.Back
Musculus, Loci communes, §14, 143–44.Back
For one recent discussion of primary and secondary literature on this, see J. V. Fesko, The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).Back
Musculus, Loci communes, §20, 168.Back
See, e.g., Andrew A. Woolsey, Unity and Continuity in Covenantal Thought: A Study in the Reformed Tradition to the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012); R. Scott Clark, “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy, ed. Herman J. Selderhuis (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 403–28.Back
Wolfgang Musculus to Thomas Erastus, 1553, quoted in Farmer, The Gospel of John in the Sixteenth Century, 4n11.Back