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Contarini on Justification (1)

In 1541, Gasparo Contarini, a cardinal in the Church of Rome, wrote a short but fascinating treatise on justification in which he espouses a position that is neither quite the pure Protestant doctrine nor the later Tridentine doctrine.

As far as I know (though I haven’t looked that hard), an English translation has never been published in the normal channels, though one was put up online for personal use some time ago.

Because one of my mottoes is, “If it ain’t broke, definitely, definitely try to fix it,” I plan to translate this work again in installments over the next several weeks with some annotations (I had also thought about transcribing the text, but that has been done too).1 At the end, I will plan to put the whole thing into one document that will then be in the public domain for anyone to use as he sees fit.

On Justification

Since in every discussion it is proper first to investigate and to perceive clearly what the terms that we are using in the discussion mean,2 especially when their multiple and equivocal significations can easily cause confusion and pervert the meaning of the whole matter: for that reason, I shall first explain what “justification” means, next what “faith” means, since the whole investigation of this case depends on making these words clear.

“To be justified,” therefore, is nothing else than to be made just, and for this reason also to be considered just.3 But “justice” is taken in many senses.4

For both5 the particular virtue that directs our works and actions toward all others whatsoever, by means of which what belongs to each one is bestowed upon him, is called “justice,” the object of which is the just and the fair. Likewise, “justice” is the universal virtue that directs the actions of each person toward the common good, which especially consists of keeping the laws; on this account it is also called “legal justice.” Aristotle treats each “justice” fully and copiously in the fifth book of the Nicomachean Ethics.

  1. The Latin text can be found beginning at p. 588 of Contarini’s works here.
  2. A traditional Western concern, but also found, e.g., in the Confucian Rectification of Names.
  3. Though Contarini’s concern for the proper use of terminology is salutary, an immediate problem occurs, insofar as he proposes to determine the meaning of “justification” based on Latin etymology and (as we shall see in a later passage) parallel word-formation. But of course Latin etymology is not dispositive for what the theological term “justification” means. As we shall also see, however, he mitigates what he says here in various ways later on.
  4. Cf. Aristotle: “It seems, in fact, that justice and injustice are spoken of in more than one way, but because the different senses of each are close to one another, their homonymy passes unnoticed and is not so obvious as it is in cases when the two are far apart” (Nicomachean Ethics 5.1129a, tr. Roger Crisp).
  5. He seems to start a “both…and” construction here with et, but instead of giving the second et below, he replaces it with item, “likewise,” in the next sentence.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

6 replies on “Contarini on Justification (1)”

Is there some place where you keep all your translations online or do I have to hunt through the Calvinist International archives? (I’m thinking about the Hemmingsen translation in particular.)

Dear Nathanael,

I’m afraid it’s hunting at this point, I’m sorry to say. The Hemmingsen material should be available in more organized fashion at some point, however: an excerpt from De lege naturae should be in an upcoming issue of Journal of Markets & Morality, with the whole treatise to follow at some point after that.

Your comment does remind me, however, that I probably should do a bit more to organize. All of the one-offs (i.e., not entire works) should be in the archives, along with projects started but not (at least not yet) finished.

Thanks for reading.

All best,

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