Five hundred and twelve years ago (May 22nd, 1498), Domenico Bonvicini, Silvestro Maruffi, and, most notably, Girolamo Savonarola were tortured, then hanged, and finally burned at the stake in the public square of Florence by church authorities. Walking around Florence today you could hardly imagine that such a brutal act would be committed in such a splendidly artistic and culturally Christian city. And you would certainly not think that this would have been the end of one of Florence’s greatest preachers.
Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican priest with great talent and oratory skills. After his training in philosophy and medicine Savonarola, originally from Ferrara, was commissioned by the Church to minister in Florence. The Church was probably thinking that his education would position him well to speak to the Florentine upper class. Instead, exactly the opposite happened.
Reading over some of Savonarola’s sermons, two realities become abundantly clear. First, Savonarola was unquestionably committed to the Scriptures and the necessity of preaching the Scriptures clearly. Second, Savonarola was no respecter of persons. This is evident as he would call out certain individuals by name who were living contrary to the Bible – even if these individuals were noblemen, or worse, priests. In fact, Savonarola spoke with greater clarity and directness when abuses were present in places of leadership. For Savonarola no domain of life should or could be lived outside of the authority of the Bible. For this reason Savonarola was known as a “prophetic preacher.” He knew the Scriptures and knew how to apply their teaching to the current problems of his day. One of the greatest of these problems he found within the church itself – immorality and self-reliance. Princes, priests and the Pope alike were wealthy. Their confidence had moved from Christ to other things – religion, art, culture, and power. The city of Florence typified this arrogance. Savonarola found no such reality in Scripture and challenged his city, and the entire country to reform. Hear Savonarola’s own words:
“Jonathan, at the time when the Philistines came into Israel and made everyone afraid so that they were hiding in caves, together only with his servant went into the camp of the enemy and assaulted them and killed about twenty in that way. And the whole camp was in disarray. Seeing this, the people of Israel who were hiding came out of the caves and the Philistines were routed and defeated.
Now, what does all this mean? It means that God alone is the one who gives strength; who makes one stronger and one weaker, according to the one who has confidence in God. The one who has confidence in God has every strength.
Italy, in what do you have confidence? Strength does not come from within oneself, from our own bodies. No, it comes through virtue. Italy, your confidence is in stones, in buildings, in fortresses and in walls, in all things corporal. But I tell you that strength does not come from within oneself.
Place here a bit of flame and a house full of wood. Where is the greater strength? This little flame or the great pile of wood? Certainly it would be the flame, though it is much smaller. But it, for its virtue, would consume everything.
So then, Italy, where is your confidence? Where is your virtue? I tell you, Italy, and listen well, God has taken from you your virtue. Italy has no more virtue left. Italy, you no longer have the hand of God upon you. One person alone who confides in God would be sufficient enough to cause a thousand, five thousand, tens of thousands in Italy to tremble.
O wicked people of Florence, where is your confidence? In what have you placed your hope? I tell you that you are ruined. Confide in what you will, because you think on worthless things. All your wise men, all of you stones, your great buildings are useless. You are facing condemnation. God alone is the One you need. You quickly forget repentance and its remedy and turn to useless things. Allow me to continue and explain myself even better. …”
Savonarola proceeds with this theme using other biblical metaphors and vivid illustrations. He concludes his sermon with these words:
“O Princes, O Rulers, your governing is totally contrary to God. He has given you this responsibility and you use it wrongly. You neglect repentance which is commanded to you by God. … I warn you, O Italy, I warn you, O Rome, that nothing can save you but Christ!”
The clarity and power of Savonarola’s preaching upset the city of Florence and sent ripples all the way to the Vatican in Rome. While he did not intend on formally separating from the Catholic Church, he never feared excommunication. Savonarola knew that his confidence was in Christ alone, and no power, civil or ecclesial, could “separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus his Lord” (Romans 8:39).
This pre-reformer was not enamored by Italy’s glamour, wealth, or apparent religiosity. He saw clearly the need within the hearts of people, and knew that Christ alone was the remedy for their sinful condition. Certainly things have changed over the years, and preachers are not being burned in the public squares. However, the condition of human hearts, Italian hearts, is the same and so is the solution. Christ alone saves!
This post was written by Marco Brucato, Italian pastor, theologian, and church planter.