Editor’s note: Next year being 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest at Wittenberg. We want to celebrate God’s mighty acts in the German Reformation and thought that this article, with part one this issue, and God willing, part two next issue, will serve as an introduction to the state of the medieval church that so greatly needed the Protestant Reformation. We are thankful for the work of Dr. Panosian on these historical subjects and for permission granted by BJU Press to use these articles.
Girolamo Savonarola differed from other “pre-reformers” such as Wycliffe and Huss in that he offered no great doctrinal protest against the Roman church. In fact, some Catholic historians consider the Italian monk a precursor of the “Counter Reformation”, the Catholic reaction to the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Savonarola’s opposition to the pope, however, his strict demands for moral purity, and his insistence on personal liberty under the kingship of Christ make him inimical to Roman Catholicism. Even if he did not fully understand the implications of his position, Savonarola prepared the way for the great moral reform that accompanied the doctrinal reform of the Reformation. “What do I preach, then with all my strength and the power of my voice,” Savonarola asked, “but repentance of sin and the mending of our ways, for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ?” The story of the Reformation begins not with the reformers themselves but with their forerunners—men who prepared the way for the great changes to come. Prominent in the record of these pre-reformers is the story of Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar who endeavored to make Jesus Christ the King of Florence. While never formally a Protestant (he lived a generation before the term was used), Savonarola was vigorous in his protest against corrupt churchmen. He was known as a powerful preacher of righteousness; for when he called for regeneration, the people responded with religious enthusiasm. His story is really the story of how the Roman church treats one of her own who will not submit to the authority of a corrupt, renegade, lecherous pope. Savonarola insisted ultimately on the authority of Scripture. He called for a church council, as in ancient times, to settle matters of ecclesiastical dispute, and he rejected papal authority when the pope commanded anything contrary to Scripture. He is acknowledged by Romanist historians to have rejected no dogma of the Roman church; yet he was charged as a heretic and hanged, his body burned May 23, 1498, though heretic he was not. The story of this “reformer before Reformation” is also an illustration of how fickle is popular favor. When he was at his height of popularity in Florence, crowds of ten and twelve thousand thronged the cathedral to hear him; they hung on his words; they were driven to fever pitch by his warnings and appeals. None so dominated the city’s masses as did Savonarola. Almost overnight the tide turned. Those who had hailed him yesterday railed at him today. Denied the spectacle of vindication they had been led to expect, they grew wrathful and became a menacing mob. Crowds gathered for his execution; many flung insults who, in recent days, had heaped praise. The parallel with the “Hosanna” of Palm Sunday’s triumphal entry and the “Let him be crucified” in a few short days is difficult to ignore. Savonarola’s eventual involvement in political affairs and his identification with one of the volatile parties of Florence can serve as another caution. It was more than participation; it became direction and leadership, to the extent that primary calling became indistinguishable from secondary responsibilities and interest. His efforts to establish a practical theocracy—a state ruled by God under the precepts of the Decalogue—could not succeed without a regenerated citizenry. The people wanted the benefits and blessings of an orderly society, civic and social virtue, and prosperity, without the cost of personal discipleship. One may at least wonder whether more permanent good may have been achieved for Italy in his day if he had spent less energy seeking a righteous city on earth and more energy seeking to make men righteous citizens of heaven. Yet we err if we judge the fifteenth-century servant of God, who sealed his conviction with his blood, from the more illuminated (but not always more consecrated) position of the twentieth century. While it may be often true that “hindsight makes wise men of us all,” we should respect the achievement and the memory of this aggressive spokesman for God. While we may regret that he did not go further to effect the break with Rome that seems to us so clearly to have been required, we should rather be grateful that he went as far as he did toward paving the way for that break. He helped expose the rottenness of the papacy. When the wickedness of the papal throne condemned the righteous monk, when error called truth error, it was not to be long before thoughtful men would demand a reversal of that reversal. With such observations in mind, let us now see some of the highlights of this unusual life.
Girolamo (Jerome) Savonarola, the third in a family of seven children, was born in Ferrara in northern Italy, September 21, 1452, about the time of the introduction of movable-type printing into western Europe. His paternal grandfather was a famous and pious physician; so the grandson, bookish but brooding, began the study of medicine. But, disappointed in love, despairing of joy, disturbed by the worldliness and wickedness he saw around him, he fled at the age of twenty-three to Bologna, taking no leave of loved ones. At Bologna he entered the cloister of the Dominican order, the Order of Preachers, brothers of St. Dominic. Two days after assuming the black habit of the order which had been charged with preaching against heresy in the Middle Ages, he wrote to his father explaining his sudden departure. This portion is revealing: I could not endure any longer the wickedness of the blinded peoples of Italy. Virtue I saw despised everywhere and vices exalted and held in honor. With great warmth of heart, I made daily a short prayer to God that He might release me from the vale of tears. “Make known to me the way,” I cried, “the way in which I should walk, for I lift up my soul unto Thee,” and God in His infinite mercy showed me the way, unworthy as I am of such distinguishing grace. . . . The reasons which drove me to become religious are these: the miserable condition of the world and the evils of which men are guilty, such as rape, immorality, robbery, pride, idolatry, cursing, all in such grave measure that it may be said that no one can be found who has any regard for what is good. Each day, therefore, weeping, I often repeated the line of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Alas, flee these cruel lands, flee this avaricious shore.” Here he studied the Scriptures and the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, gave himself to prayer and fasting, and meditated on the wickedness of the world contrasted with the demands of a holy and righteous God. He committed whole portions of Scripture to memory and became a tutor and teacher of monastic novices, instructing them in Hebrew and Greek. These were six years of undistinguished preparation for coming days of unsought fame. Soon the young monk was sent to his home town, but made little impression there. He long remembered a cutting remark he heard after his preaching in Ferrara: “The brothers must be in great need of workers.” When threat of war forced the dispersal of the Dominicans there, he was relieved to be sent to Florence. Florence was to be the city linked to his name through the centuries after his death; yet only the last seventeen of his almost forty-six years were spent there, and only the last seven of those seventeen were years of his fame. Florence was the city of the Renaissance arts par excellence; every art flourished there. The city was under the sway of the Medici family, merchants and bankers of Italy known throughout Europe, patrons of art and literature. While they held no office in the city’s government, they controlled its policies by their influence and beneficence. Cosimo de Medici, major founder of the family’s Renaissance position, had commissioned Michelozzi, the architect, to build for his family a “modest” palace. Cosimo was so pleased with the result, and so embarrassed that he lived in a beautiful residence while the Dominican monks of his city lived in such contrast, that he commissioned the same architect to rebuild St. Mark’s (San Marco), their cloister, at Medici expense. Each of the cells were subsequently decorated with a scene of Christ’s dying on the cross, painted by Fra Angelico.
To St. Mark’s came Savonarola in 1481. His first preaching at San Lorenzo, the Medici’s parish church, met with no success. Hardly twenty-five hearers listened to him. So he discarded philosophy and scholastic learning and mere literary form and preached the Bible. He applied its principles to everyday life. His audiences grew. His superiors sent him on preaching missions to neighboring cities. It was by the “foolishness of preaching” that he communicated the urgency of his message. This preaching was composed of Scripture, mysticism, dramatic “flashes of lightning and reverberations of thunder,” attacks
upon corrupt and insincere clergy, and prophetic insight (an acute political and religious intuition)—enhanced in the view of the people when some bold forecasts came true. But behind these elements was the man himself. He was variously described as of an “impressive, eager countenance, deep-set flashing eye, massive jaw, full lips, with hands and fingers fine, white, lithe, flexible, muscular, firm,” and “of middle height, dark complexion, lustrous eyes dark gray in color, thick lips and aquiline nose.” In 1489 and 1490 he began the years of his establishment in Florence. People thronged to hear him. His name was on the city’s lips.
Dr. Panosian taught Church History at Bob Jones University for 50 years and conducted study tours of Reformation Europe. Now in retirement, he attends Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC, and regularly presents in churches the lives of the Reformers as “Church History in First Person.