Bonfire of the Vanities (1453-1498)

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken May 23, 1999

Five hundred and one years ago tonight, on the 23rd of May in the year 1498, Savonarola was burned at the stake. The citizens of Florence mourned, and the poets lamented his passing with these words:

Charity is extinct,

Love of God is no more.

All are lukewarm;

And without living faith… .

Alas! the Saint is dead!

Alas! O Lord! Alas!

Thou hast taken our Prophet

And drawn him to thyself.

Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), the great Italian preacher, was one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. He is worthy of our consideration because his life and death illustrate the problems the church was facing in the 15th century. This is the fifth in a series of ten Windows on the World covering the last millennium in church history.

Savonarola was born and raised within the Roman church. As a young man he decided to go into the ministry and he became a friar in a Dominican convent. Before long it became apparent that he was a gifted Bible scholar, and at the age of 30 he was sent to Florence, where his primary duty was the exposition of Scripture.

As a preacher traveling throughout the city and the surrounding countryside, Savonarola began to attack the widespread corruption in both Italian culture and the Roman Catholic church. Gradually, his sermons attracted the attention and the interest of the leading politicians and intellectuals of the day, men like Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence, and the philosopher Pico della Mirandola.

Savonarola’s preaching had a prophetic tone to it. He predicted that the city of Florence would have to endure a period of intense suffering before it could be restored and reformed. The only way divine judgment could be avoided was if people repented for their sins, sought to be united to Christ by faith, and began to imitate his perfect life of loving obedience.

When Italy was invaded by the French army in 1494, Savonarola’s prophecies seemed to be fulfilled. Florence became enemy-occupied territory. But this led to the restoration of the city, in part through Savonarola’s efforts. He persuaded the French king not to destroy the city and he helped to reorganize its government as a republic.

In fact, Savonarola became about as popular as a preacher ever does. He was able to use his influence to create a sort of welfare system to care for the poor and the sick. He also did everything he could to encourage education, science, and the arts. His goal was to establish a new culture based on biblical principles rather than humanistic ones.

Savonarola did not stop preaching, however, and he continued to speak out against sexual immorality, prostitution, gambling, blasphemy, drunkenness, and other common sins. He helped start prayer meetings on the city streets and staged public conflagrations at which people burned their pornography, their gambling equipment, and even their cosmetics. These “Bonfires of the Vanities,” as they were called, were intended to help purge the city of evil.

Sooner or later, preachers who teach and apply the Bible are bound to run into opposition, especially if they preach against sins people enjoy committing. Savonarola was no exception. What got him into trouble were his scathing comments about the church. He came to doubt whether it was really biblical for the ministry of the church to be based around convents and monasteries, at least the way they were run at that time. He also attacked the excessive luxury of the pope and his court.

Word of Savonarola’s preaching eventually reached the Vatican, and in 1495 Pope Alexander VI summoned him to Rome to defend his ministry. Although he was still Catholic in his doctrine, Savonarola refused to go to Rome, in part because he believed that the pope was a servant of Satan rather than a follower of Christ.

He simply continued preaching in Florence for several more years. As a result,

he was eventually excommunicated, arrested, tortured, hanged, and burned. Before Savonarola died, he uttered this famous lament for his adopted city: “Thy sins, O Florence, are the cause of these stripes. But now repent, offer prayers, become united. I have wearied myself all the days of my life to make known to thee the truths of the faith, and of holy living; and I have had nothing but tribulations, derision, and reproach” [F. B. Meyer, Jeremiah, rev. edn. (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1993), 107].

In many ways, Savonarola is a good example for us to follow today. One thinks of Paul’s words to Timothy: Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned (2 Tim. 3:12-14a).

We need to continue in what we have learned because we face many of the same issues Savonarola faced. Gambling and sexual sin are rampant. The leading artists and politicians of our day follow secular principles rather than biblical ones. And the evangelical church is part of the problem. The behavior of those who call themselves Christians is often hard to distinguish from those who do not. If the evangelical magazines and the ecclesiastical junk mail are any indication, many churches are more interested in material prosperity than spiritual vitality.

How little has changed in the last five hundred years! Savonarola witnessed the same kinds of corruption in his day that we witness in ours. Ultimately, he despaired of being able to do very much about it. What he could not quite see was the doctrine which best is able to reform the church: the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Savonarola was not a Protestant. Yet his preaching on spiritual renewal helped prepare the way for a sort of Italian Reformation. And in the middle of the next century, when Pope Paul IV examined his writings, he said “This is Martin Luther, this doctrine is pestiferous!” [William Robinson Clark, Savonarola, His Life and Times (Chicago: McClurg, 1890), 417]. We will have more to say about Luther, and about the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, next month, when we get to the 16th century.

[Biographical details come from the Oxford Dictionary of Church History and the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation]

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