By Simonetta Carr

The Benefit of Christ – The Most Influential Book You Have Never Read

It was 1543. North of the Alps, Protestant reformers were busy publishing books. In Rome, the papacy was busy banning them. Still, the publishers in Venice, a proudly independent republic with a reputation of opposition to the pope, were persistent. That year’s best-seller was an Italian essay by a characteristically long name: Trattato utilissimo del beneficio di Giesù Cristo crocifisso verso i cristiani (Most useful treatise on the benefit of Jesus Christ crucified for Christians). It was called, for short, Il Beneficio di Cristo (The Benefit of Christ).

A Much Hated Best-Seller

            According to the Italian theologian Pier Paolo Vergerio (1498-1565), the book sold 40,000 copies in six years in Venice alone – an impressive number at that time. It was an immediate success, especially among the group of Italian reformers – including high-ranking nobles and cardinals - who had been unsuccessfully trying to fight Rome’s corruption and promote a return to the original Scriptures (ad fontes). In this 70-page treatise, they found a concise explanation of important doctrines on which the church had not yet reached an official consensus, such as justification by faith alone.

            Soon, the book was reprinted in other cities and translated in other languages, including English, French, and Croatian. One English copy included handwritten notes by King Edward VI, who had obviously enjoyed its study.

            On the other hand, some clergymen immediately attacked it as full of “Lutheran errors and deceptions.”[1] It was burned in Naples in 1544, placed on the index of forbidden books in 1549, and finally outlawed by name at the Council of Trent. Its faults were identical to those Rome found in Lutheran writings, chiefly that it presented justification as a single act of God towards sinners, independent of their works, instead of a gradual progression by degrees.

            The papacy considered it so dangerous that it almost succeeded in destroying every Italian copy. In 1855, an Italian copy was found at St. John’s College Library in Cambridge, spurring a renewed interest in the treatise.

A Mysterious Author

            The book appeared on the shelves as an anonymous work. The reason given was “so that the content rather than the authority of the author may move you.” There might also have been a concern for safety, given that just the previous year the pope had reopened the Roman Inquisition with the specific goal of crushing the Lutheran “heresy.”

            In 1567, Roman authorities extracted, by torture, a confession from humanist Pietro Carnesecchi (1508-1567), who had been guilty of mingling in pro-Lutheran circles. The torture and interrogation lasted many days, with the intent of obtaining names, including the name of the author of The Benefit.

            Carnesecchi finally revealed the book was written by an obscure Benedictine monk, Benedetto Fontanini, also known as Benedetto da Mantova (1495-1556). After writing it, Benedetto passed it on to poet Marcantonio Flaminio (1498-1550) for a literary revision. Being both dead, these men escaped death at the hand of the inquisition. Carnesecchi, on the other hand, was found guilty on 34 accounts (mostly doctrines that today’s Protestants would find highly orthodox) and was beheaded and then burned.

            Carnesecchi’s confession remained buried in the papal files until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII opened the Vatican Secret Archives to researchers. At that point, interest peaked for both the book and its author. In spite of this, we still know little about Benedetto’s life: he lived in monasteries in Mantua and Venice, and headed a monastery in Sicily and another near Ferrara. In 1549, he was interrogated on charges of heresy, but was released. He died around 1556.

Influences

            As it seems, Benedetto spent some time with the Spanish reformer Juan de Valdes, who had created a circle of like-minded believers in Naples. Valdes had a powerful impact in Italy, influencing reformers like Bernardino Ochino and Peter Martyr Vermigli and intellectuals like Cardinal Reginald Pole and Vittoria Colonna. Most likely, he had a similar influence on Benedetto.

            Casual readers of The Benefit are quick to point out its similarities with Luther’s and Calvin’s works. On the other hand, the treatise is far from being a simple compilation of quotes. It’s a concise, original, and clear explanation of the main doctrines of grace and justification, written in a simple and poetic language.

            Its organization reminds of the three categories of guilt, grace, and gratitude in the Heidelberg Catechism, which was written twenty years later. Some of its language is also similar, raising the possibility that the treatise influenced the catechism’s authors. For example, the first chapter, on sin and misery, is followed by a chapter on the law which is given “so that we would recognize our sin, and despairing of our ability to justify ourselves by works, would have recourse to the mercy of God and the justice of faith.”[2]

            From there, the book moves on to justification because of Christ alone, union with Christ, the difference between law and gospel, the two Adams, good works as a natural consequence of faith, and prayer and the sacraments as remedies for lack of confidence.

            This short and inspiring treatise – so influential in its day – is now largely unknown. The only unabridged translation into modern English is included in a rare, 52-year old book which was published in Italy and is now extremely hard to find.[3] Maybe the renewed interest will bring about a new Engish translation. It’s definitely worth the effort.



[1] From the title of a book (Compendio d’errori et inganni luterani) written in 1544 by the Dominican Ambrogio Catarino in response to The Benefit.

[2] Tedeschi, John A., ed. Italian Reformation Studies in Honor of Laelius Socinus, Le Monnier, Florence, 1965, p. 49. It’s reminiscent of the Heidelberg Catechism, 2: “Q. How do you come to know your misery? A. The law of God tells me.”

[3] Ibid.

 


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