More on the Benefit of Christ

More on the Benefit of Christ


            My earlier post on the 16th-century booklet The Benefit of Christ has elicited many responses. Several people have pointed me to this edition, which I had seen before. It’s not a faithful translation and is written in such an archaic language that in no means communicates the warmth and spontaneity of the Italian original.

            My readers’ interest has spurred me to do further research, and I have discovered a good modern translation, practically identical to the one I mentioned in my post. It’s included in the book Reform Thought in Sixteenth-Century Italy, edited by Elizabeth G. Gleason[1]. The book is expensive but there are a few affordable used copies out there. It’s also available in many libraries throughout the US (I checked it out through my local library).

            Is it worth the effort, given that we have so many other excellent Reformation books which are widely available? I am firmly convinced that it is. Think of a concise, but thorough exposition of basic soteriology with the warmth of the Heidelberg Catechism. It goes through sin, salvation, union with Christ, and remedies against lack of assurance. It could easily be used for a Bible study, an introduction to Christianity, or family devotions.

            My pastor says it’s his favorite book after the Bible. My favorite portions are the distinction between law and gospel and the description of Christ’s church as his bride (with the same warmth of a Samuel Rutherford).

            Here is an excerpt on assurance of salvation which is reminiscent of Martin Luther: “If I reflect on my actions, there is no doubt that I know I am sinful and condemned, and my conscience would never be quiet, if I believed that my sins were pardoned through the works that I do. But if I reflect on the promises and the covenant of God, who promises me remission of sins through the blood of Christ, I am as certain of having obtained this and of having his grace as I am confident and certain that he who has promised and made the covenant cannot lie of deceive.”[2]

            Another passage shows how predestination was at that time seen mostly as a source of comfort. “Besides prayer, the memory of baptism, and frequent use of the most holy communion, the best remedy against diffidence and fear (which is not compatible with Christian charity) is the memory of our predestination and our election to eternal life. This is founded on the Word of God, which is the sword of the Holy Spirit, and with which we can kill our enemies. ‘Rejoice,’ says the Lord, ‘that your names are written in Heaven.’”[3]


Italian Reform Thought

            Reform Thought in Sixteenth-Century Italy is interesting in other ways to anyone who has an interest in the 16th century religious thought. If there was every an example of heterogeneous thought, it was in Italy at this time. A Reformation of the church was clearly needed, but opinions differed as on its nature and extent.

            This book includes examples of this thought, starting with the 1497 Oratory of Divine Love, one of the many confraternities of lay people that continued to proliferate during the 16th century. They were mostly concerned about moral and spiritual issues (hence the name of spirituali given to their followers).

            Other passages in the book are authored by important figures in the Italian Reformation. There are three interesting letters by Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), a cardinal who embraced the doctrine of sola fide but continued to support the papacy as institution. These letters, written when he was in his 40’s, highlight his spiritual dilemma. “Nobody can justify himself or purge his soul of worldly affections through works. He must have recourse to divine grace which we obtain through faith in Jesus Christ, as Saint Paul writes.”[4] At that time, Contarini could write freely of his thoughts to other cardinals and friends, because the doctrine of sola fide had not yet been condemned at the Council of Trent. Contarini’s attempt to bring a conciliation between Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines in 1541 failed miserably and he died the following year.

            There is also a discourse by Bernadino Ochino, the popular preacher who escaped Italy in 1542 (at the same time as Peter Martyr Vermigli). Ochino’s disagreements with Calvin prompted him to leave Geneva. From then on, he continued to wander around Europe as his ideas became more radical and unaccepted by the established Protestant churches.

            The book also includes an encouraging letter by Marcantonio Flaminio (editor of The Benefit of Christ) to a lady in Naples (pointing her to Christ), a memorial written by Gianpietro Carafa, the man behind the Roman Inquisition, and a document signed by several cardinals and archbishops (including Contarini, Carafa, Jacopo Sadoleto, and Reginald Pole) on the abuses of the church that, in their view, needed correction. These last two documents give a general idea of what type of reformation Roman Catholic Church officials wanted to sanction (most of which were discussed at the Council of Trent).

            Bookworms and history buffs will appreciate this overview of the context in which The Benefit of Christ was written. Everyone else can simply enjoy the clarity and poetry of Benedetto’s leaflet.

[1] Reform Thought in Sixteenth-Century Italy, edited by Elizabeth G. Gleason, Edwards Brothers, Michigan, 1981

[2] Ibid, 131

[3] Ibid, 148.

[4] Ibid, 33.


Simonetta Carr