by Pastor Paul K. Christianson

What doest Thou, O Lord? Why dost Thou slumber? Arise and come to Deliver Thy church from the hands of the devils! Hasten then the chastisement and the scourge, that it may be quickly granted us to return to Thee. Be ye not scandalized, O my brethren. The only hope is that the sword of God may soon smite the earth.

This extract from a sermon by Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) highlight his profound sense of outrage over the condition of the Roman Catholic church at the end of the fifteenth century. Earlier efforts to deliver this church from worldliness had failed on two counts: in the defeat of the Hussites and their once victorious armies, and the papal dominion over the council of Constance 1414 – 1418, which had sought – in vain – to reform the church from within.

From Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455), to Alexander VI, who closes the century, the primary interest of the popes was the extension of their personal domains, architectural grandeur and humanism. Perhaps the comments of the later Medici Pope, Leo X, on learning of his election to the throne (1513) summarizes the character of the Renaissance papacy: “Now that we have attained the papacy, let us enjoy it”. And enjoy it he did, when not distracted by the unyielding German reformer, Martin Luther.

Rodrigo Borgia came to the papal throne as Alexander VI (1492-1503), his pontificate exemplifying a love of pleasure to the point of obsession, and the making of a career founded upon nepotism, simony and profligacy. The papacy had reached its climax in an abyss of moral, religious and bureaucratic decadence. In the midst of these appalling corruptions of the late fifteenth-century Girolamo Savonarola appears.

Born in Ferrara, the son of a family who served the wealthy and politically astute Este, Savonarola renounced his humanistic and medical studies, fleeing to the Dominican monastery at Bologna. The life at the Renaissance court, as well as the “new learning” had no appeal for the monk. But in the strict observance of the cloister, Savonarola not only escaped what he perceived to be the wickedness and vanity of the world, but also found a refuge for study and meditation. As was typical of his day, the young monk studied Aguinas and Augustine, but unlike his contemporaries he drank deeply at the well of Scripture, putting much of it to memory.

After completing his studies Savonarola was surprisingly recognized, not for his preaching, but for his skillful administrative work. His initial attempts at preaching met with little success either in his native city of Farrara, or in Florence. Late in the fifteenth century, Florence was the most brilliant of the Italian Renaissance cities, and under the tutelage of the dazzling Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492), the city came to its height of prestige and influence. Though considered to be a crude and unrefined preacher, Savonarola was not dissuaded from the task to which he thought God had called him: to preach against the evils around him in the Roman Catholic church and in Italian society. For a period of several years he withdrew to the lesser cities of northern Italy improving and polishing his preaching style. At Brescia in 1486, the friar preached a series of Lenten sermons which established his reputation, especially by his belief that the mark of the true church was obedience to God rather than to Rome. While his preaching brought him greater and greater acclaim, he was also a keen administrator for the order. The famous humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), enthusiastically commended these abilities to Lorenzo de Medici who, in 1490, offered Savonarola the priorate of the Dominican monastery of San Marco in Florence.

In this period and down to the time of his death, Savonarolaís preaching attracted large crowds. It also aroused great interest from lords and princes, businessmen and the lower classes of society, and eventually from the papacy itself. Progressing from the seclusion of the monastery cloisters, to the monastery church, and to the cathedral in Florence, the thunder of Savonarola’s voice could be heard crying against sin: “For, behold, the day cometh, it burneth as a furnace; and all the proud, and all that work wickedness, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up” (Mal. 4:1). The Dominican friar called all classes in the city to repentance and devotion to God; but some of his more vigorous indictments came against the lower clergy and the prelates.

P. Villari, a nineteenth-century Renaissance historian quotes from one of Savonarolaís sermons denouncing widespread corruption:

In these days, prelates and preachers are chained to the earth by the love of earthly things. The care of souls is no longer their concern. They are content with the receipt of revenue. The preachers preach to please princes and to be praised by them. They have done worse. They have not only destroyed the Church of God. They have built up a new church after their own pattern. Go to Rome and see! Thou shalt find them all with the books of the humanities in their hands and telling one another that they can guide men’s souls by means of Virgil, Horace and Cicero. Dost thou not know what I would tell thee? What doest thou, O Lord! Arise, and come to deliver thy Church from the hands of devils, from the hands of tyrants, from the hands of iniquitous prelates.

Such Preaching, attended by thousands, brought on the disfavor of the leading political family of Florence, the de Medici. The Medicean circle included noblemen, soldiers, wealthy bankers, artists and cardinals with ties to the papacy. Savonarola continued unrelenting in his preaching against the “vanities” and sins of Florentine life. Lorenzo de Medici soon requested a meeting with the monk that issues might be resolved, but the latter refused. Indeed, after learning of a large “donation” bestowed upon the monastery by De Medici, Savonarola responded from the pulpit: A virtuous pastor “is like a good watchdog – when a thief comes along and throws him a bone, he puts it to one side and goes on barking”. In the spring of 1492 Lorenzo “The Magnificent” died, and two years later with the invasion of King Charles VIII, the de Medici were exiled, leaving the monk as the ecclesiastical, political and social leader of the city.

Savonarola was now freed from every encumbrance to pursue his goal of amending the social and moral fabric of Florentine society, as well as that of Italy and beyond, through preaching and constitutional reform. Teaching that man is reborn through the work of the Spirit of God, and not through the rebirth of the new learning, which was associated with classical antiquity, Savonarola painted vivid pictures of an evil society and a depraved clergy.

It was inevitable that this powerful but solitary preacher should clash with the aims and agenda of the papacy under Alexander VI. This pope had little interest in reform of any kind, especially when it meant interference with his own appetite for prestige and political advantage. Savonarolaís ideal of a theocratic state made up of saints, with Jesus Christ as its Head did not sit well with the pope, neither did the friar’s alliance with the French King, Charles VIII, who later sacked Rome. In spite of the monk’s attacks on the abuses of the clergy, relations between pope and monk were not initially adverse. After the murder of the pope’s son, Savonarola extended sympathy to Alexander in a letter mixed with a call to repentance, hoping in the light of this tragedy, that the pope might repent and be saved. But Savonarola’s hope for this member of the notorious Borgia family was doomed to disappointment. On 25 July 1495 Alexander summoned him to Rome to answer charges of rebelliousness. Exasperated, and not wishing for political reasons to excommunicate the friar, Alexander resorted to bribery. Even the offer of a cardinal’s “red hat” did not suffice to close the mouth of the monk.

After 17 February 1496, Savonarola’s preaching became more intense in its denunciation of the clergy and Rome:

It begins in Rome where the clergy make mock of Christ….They traffic in the sacraments. They sell benefices to the highest bidder. Have not the priests in Rome courtesans and grooms and horses and dogs? Have they not palaces full of tapestries and silks, of perfumes and lackeys? Seemeth it, that this is the Church of God?

Finally, refusing to accede to Alexander’s demands, Savonarola was excommunicated on 12 May 1497. His preaching was pointed and powerful up to the very end. W. Roscoe in his Life of Lorenzo de Medici describes it as not descending “amongst his audience like the dews of heaven. It was piercing hail, the sweeping whirlwind, the destroying sword”. And Savonarola himself, in a sermon dated 14 March 1498, described his own style: “I am like the hail. Cover thyself lest it come down upon thee, and strike thee. And remember that I said unto the, cover thy head with a helmet, that is, clothe thyself with virtue and no hail stone will touch thee”. The storm finally erupted but over Savonarola’s own head. After a failed attempt to invoke the Lord’s judgment through trial by fire in full view of Florence’s citizenry, the discredited monk was seized, tortured and later “confessed”. It was a confession which he later recanted. Soon after, he was hanged and the body burnt at the stake in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, in May, 1498.

What may we learn from the life of Savonarola? First, we may take inspiration from his boldness in preaching, and his uncompromising stand for what he perceived to be God’s truth. In his day, as in ours, many yield their convictions to the influential family or bloc. Within the congregation, fearing the reproach of men, rather than of God. Luke records for posterity Paul’s declaration: “I shrank not from declaring unto you anything that was profitable” (Acts 20:20). As Solomon reminds us, “the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1). Let people and preacher fear nothing but the loss of Christ’s favor.

Secondly, we learn from the life of Savonarola that it is not enough to preach moral and ecclesiastical reform apart from sound doctrine. For all his zeal for righteousness, his Triumph of the Cross is really a defense of Roman Catholic Doctrine. But that was its weakness. History is strewn with powerful preachers who momentarily transformed the life of a community. The monk’s sermonizing, while taken from the Scripture, was full of the apocalyptic and the prophetic, but contained little careful exposition or doctrine. Savonarolaís appeals were based on the dogmas of Thomas Aquinas and the traditions of medieval Roman Catholicism.

Where this Dominican monk failed, a German Augustinian monk (Martin Luther) would later succeed. By God’s grace he did so through careful thought and exposition of the great doctrine of Justification by Faith. Herein lies that heart-changing power which makes possible the renovation of society. This is the essential contrast between the Florentine and Wittenberg reformations. Unlike Savanarola and the Observant mendicant religious orders of his day which emphasized moral refurbishment, Luther viewed reformation first as the recovery of sound doctrine. He understood that moral reform is only shallow reform apart from that doctrine which sponsors a true revival of faith and practice.

Thirdly, Girolamo Savonarola’s message was a dramatic call for individual and collective reform. It was a desire to see no longer the practice of immorality among people and clergy. In this he followed in the footsteps of Wycliffe and Huss, and like them was recognized by Luther and Beza as a forerunner of the Great Reformation. To this judgment we can heartily agree.

O that God would raise up a prophetic voice today!