Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Contarini on Justification (12)

Contarini continues to discuss conversion and one’s preparation for it. He does not view it as normally instantaneous (though it can be), and states that the one “who is being converted” should act in accordance with what is also the first principle of the law of nature: do good and avoid evil.

Such obedience, however, is not for Contarini the ground of justification or, interestingly, sanctification. Contarini has three authorities in his corner to claim that justification and sanctification are not give for works: Paul, Augustine, and Thomas. Both are rather “owed” to faith (see note below). But faith is not the ground or the cause (terms which can be used synonymously) of justification; it merits, or deserves (mereamur), nothing. Faith is instead the instrument by which justification is received–this is the force of the preposition per in the expression per fidem. Faith enables man to be connected to and to receive the righteousness of God. As textual support, he cites the letters to the Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews.


Meanwhile, however, while the soul is thus being prepared1 by the Lord and prepares itself, since this preparation does not come about in a moment of time, except in the case of a miracle, as happened to the Apostle Paul, if the opportunity should be present he who is being turned [converted] does good works and refrains from evil. Nevertheless, justification and sanctification is not rendered2 for works–as Paul says, as blessed Augustine says in countless passages, and as Thomas [says] expressly in the First Part of the Second Part–but is owed to faith,3 not because we merit justification by faith and because we believe, but because we receive it4 by faith; for thus the Apostle says in the Letter to the Galatians: “receiving the promise of the Spirit by faith.” Likewise in the Letter to the Romans: “through whom we have access into this grace by faith.” In the Letter to the Hebrews: “It is necessary that the one approaching God believe,” because by believing do we approach this access. That which the Apostle calls “receiving” blessed Thomas in the Third Part names “application,”5 saying that the passion of Christ is, as it were, a common6 medicine, which each one applies to himself by faith and the sacraments7 of faith. (De Iustificatione, p. 591)

  1. The previous translator was, I think, right to take these verbs with progressive aspect and helped to clarify my own interpretation of the passage.
  2. Often, a verb with a compound subject is singular if its nearest subject is singular. Perhaps that is all that is occurring here (and also with debetur shortly afterwards). But it just may also be significant of the simultaneity of the gifts of inherent and imputed righteousness hinted at last time and soon to be discussed in greater detail; and so I have left it singular in English. It should be noted, however, that the simultaneity of the two does not, for Contarini, elide the all-important distinction between the two.
  3. Perhaps an ironic figure of speech: justification is not, properly speaking, “owed” at all, but, improperly speaking, it is “owed” to the non-meritorious instrumentality of faith.
  4. That is, justification.
  5. Or “joining.”
  6. I.e., shared.
  7. Or “mysteries.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

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