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

In 1543 an obscure Benedictine monk, Benedetto Fontanini, wrote “The Benefit of Christ;” the book sold 40,000 copies in six years in Venice alone.

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.”

 

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.”

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