A Forgotten Reformer: Aonio Paleario’s The Benefits Christ’s Death
October has come and gone, but the bustling and buzz of the Protestant Reformation can still be seen and felt. The pulse of evangelicalism is louder than usual about the Reformation because we’re coming up on the 500 year anniversary of that fateful day in 1517 when an unassuming monk nailed what is now known as the “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. I’m almost positive that Martin Luther had no idea what he started. He probably wasn’t even looking to start anything in the first place. But October 31, 1517 is an extremely crucial day for all modern believers, not just Lutherans or those who call themselves Protestant. Much of what’s resulted since then can be traced back to a simple professor struggling to harmonize man’s words with God’s.
When we talk about the Reformation, this is usually where our mind goes. We think of Luther and his theses. Or of the five solas. Or Calvin and his Institutes. Or we think of other reformers, such as Zwingli, Bucer, Knox, or Melanchthon. Or we think of places such as Scotland, Switzerland, Germany, and France. But little is ever mentioned of the reformation in Italy. This is primarily due to it being stifled quite soundly and swiftly by the Counter-Reformation of the late 16th and 17th centuries. The resurgence of Catholicism, coupled with a lack of real Protestant leadership saw the suppression of Reformed thought from ever being championed or accepted in Italy, like the rest of Europe largely saw and experienced. The aggressiveness of the Catholic Church to expose and squash heresy caused what little core of Protestantism there was to flee to more northern countries to continue their work.
But a great story remains to be told of one Aonio Paleario. Paleario, also known as Antonio dalla Paglia (circa 1500-1571), was a great reformer who is all but lost to us now. Perhaps this is due to the Counter-Reformation and the zeal with which the Church of Rome eviscerated and accused heretics and their works, as well as because his works were scarcely distributed or translated. Many remain in the original Italian. But none are more important, then and now, than his The Benefit of Christ’s Death. This short treatise on the passion of Christ was the center of both triumph and turmoil for Paleario. Originally penned around 1542, Paleario was censured and charged with heresy by the Holy Roman Inquisition in 1567 for the topics and conclusions of his treatise. Chief among these was the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ. This is treated at length in Paleario’s tract, who goes on to say that “if the sin of Adam was sufficient enough to make all men sinners and children of wrath, without any misdeed of our own, much more shall Christ’s righteousness be of greater force to make us all righteous, and the children of grace, without any of our own good works.” (38)
Yet this same glorious truth which we champion today, as was championed by our reforming forefathers, was discounted and discredited as “poison” by Paleario’s Inquisitors. Paleario describes this time in Italy as one in which people were “weary for their lives.” (Young, 550) The public and private proclamation of reformed doctrine and thought was threatened, not only with imprisonment but with death. Anything or anyone even resembling the Protestant doctrines of the Reformation were met with instant persecution. Lives and livelihoods were at stake with the acceptance of Reformational truth. These days were so treacherous and grievous for those who aligned with the reformers that it is said the “Inquisitors were acting like beasts of prey, going about ‘seeking whom they may devour.’” (Young, 552)
And devour Paleario they did, putting him to death because of his staunch defense of the glorious truth of the gospel that “our own merits bear no sway at all in making us righteous,” but that “the righteousness of Jesus Christ hath utterly done away all our unrighteousness.” (Paleario, 69, 48) For this he was deemed worthy of the “severest punishment.”
But despite being fully aware of this reality, Paleario wasn’t swayed from it — no, just the opposite. He became even more steadfast in his defense of the reformed gospel even as that defense was killing him. Upon being summoned to appear in court before the Inquisition for the truths laid out in The Benefit of Christ’s Death, Paleario penned a letter to the senators of Milan, from which he hailed. In the letter, he talks about accepting the consequences for such a defense of Reformational truth, stating plainly, “They judged the writer worthy of being thrown into the fire; which punishment, if I am called to undergo on the account of the testimony deposed . . . no one will rejoice more than I shall.” (Young, 558)
Rejoicing at his own death? This seems a little ludicrous and a lot insane. But such is the insanity of a gospel that declares all the work done, all the law satisfied, all the debts paid. Such is the grand news of God that says “It is finished” in all matters of reconciliation and redemption. Such is the gospel of grace which cancels and forgives all sin for those who turn to Christ crucified. In faith, the merits of the Son become yours and your sins become his — he wears your rags and you wear his righteousness.
Put thy trust in the Lord, who beareth thee so great love, that, to deliver thee from eternal death, it hath pleased him that his only Son should suffer death and passion, who hath taken upon himself our poverty, to give us his riches; laid our weakness upon himself, to establish us in his strength; become mortal, to make us immortal; come down unto the earth, to advance us up to heaven; and become the Son of man with us, to make us the children of God with himself. (Paleario, 112–13)
Indeed, such is the scandal and madness of grace — a reckless, violent love that seeks out and saves sinners. This sort of truth, that which was heralded throughout the Reformation and beyond, is the sort that ruffles the feathers of many religious authorities, both then and now. As it was 500 years ago, the religious elite don’t like this message and seek to curtail and castrate it any chance they get. News that packs this much freedom is surely too dangerous to let loose on the general assembly — thus, it must be diluted and moderated.
But, as with Luther and his contemporaries, Paleario wasn’t afraid of this message and the seeming scandal that followed in its wake. All the more did he throw himself upon this bedrock of Scripture and the apparent lynchpin of the Reformation itself, that being the gospel’s announcement of justification by faith. “Let us give all the glory of our justification to the merits of Jesus Christ,” Paleario writes, “with whom we be clothed through faith.” (91)
We, therefore, must come to the same conclusion as Paleario, Luther, Calvin, and others did, settling for sola Scriptura, which undoubtedly carries the message salvation in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. (Eph. 2:4–8) The Word of God alone — both in Person and in print — must be the foundation upon which we rest our lives. For in so doing, we’re not just “doing as the reformers did,” we’re doing as Scripture says.
There remaineth nothing more for us to do, but to glorify God by following the life of Jesus Christ, and to do to our brethren as Christ hath done to us. (Paleario, 98–99)
Aonio Paleario, The Benefit of Christ’s Death, edited by John Ayer (Boston: Gould & Lincoln, 1860).
M. Young, The Life and Times of Aonio Paleario: A History of the Italian Reformers in the 16th Century, Vol. 2 (London: Bell & Daldy, 1860).