Sunday, February 21, 2010

Live to Die, and Die to Live Again

In 1542 or thereabouts, an anonymous tract was published in Italy called Tratto utilissimo del beneficio de Giesu Christo (On the Benefit of Christ's Death). One of the most important literary productions of the Italian Reformation, it was so popular at the time that within the space of six years, about 40,000 copies had been sold. However, it landed on the Index of Prohibited Books, and the Inquisition was largely successful in rounding up and destroying almost all extant copies. Authorship of the book has been debated for centuries with 19th century scholars ascribing it to the Italian Reformer and martyr Aonio Paleario (1500-1570) and 20th century scholars attributing it to the joint work of poet Marcantonio Flaminio (c. 1497-1550) and the Benedictine monk Benedetto da Mantova. The Inquisitors were so successful in proscribing the book that by the early nineteenth century, when Thomas M'Crie the Elder wrote his history of the Reformation in Italy, he was unable to obtain a copy of this book. His research though did lead to the discovery that the work had been translated into English. After M'Crie's death, around 1840, copies of this work finally came to light, one of which was a manuscript of a 1548 English translation by Edward Courtenay bearing handwritten notes by King Edward VI himself, to whom the translation was evidently loaned by his aunt, Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. One of those notes, written on a leaf near the end of the manuscript, reads as follows: "Live to die, and die to live again." These words speak to the good news of the great benefit of Christ's death, that our Great Shepherd having laid down his life for his sheep, and thereby conquered death itself, we might, by trusting in him, pass from death unto life, and so die to ourselves and live to him; for us "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1.21).

As the author of The Benefit of Christ's Death writes:

And therefore St. Paul saith that the obligation which was against us is cancelled by Jesus Christ, and discharged upon the tree of the cross, insomuch as he hath set us free from the subjection of the law, and consequently from the tyranny of sin and death, which can no more hereafter hold us oppressed, because it is overcome by Jesus Christ in his resurrection, and so consequently by us, which are his members; in such manner that we may say with St. Paul [1 Cor. 15.55-57], and with the prophet Hosea [Hos. 13.14], "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death! where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ."

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