Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Parables of Savonarola

Earlier I cited a sermon given by Savonarola, a Reformer Before Luther, detailing his view of the state of the church just prior to the Reformation (1495).

Here are some more descriptions of what the Roman church was like during that period, in the form of some parables he gave in that same sermon:

The Parables of Savonarola: #1: The Two Fields

Now I shall speak to you of the parables which signify the renovation of the Church.

The first parable is about a citizen who has a farm in which there are two pieces of land, one adjoining the other. One of them is full of stones, thorns and weeds, and of everything else that does not bear fruit. That citizen does not plow or cultivate this field; the other field he plows and cultivates every year, and he tends it with every care because it looks like land good enough to produce fruit. Nevertheless he sees that which looks like good land produces little or no fruit. What do you think that this citizen will do who owns these two fields? Certainly, if he is prudent, he will take all those stones and thorns that are in the first field and throw all of them in that other field, and he will begin to plow and cultivate this other field. The citizen is Christ who became a citizen, that is, a man similar to you who has a rocky and thorny field, that is, a land of infidels full of hardness similar to stones and heresies similar to thorns, and He also has the other field, that is, a land of Christians which He has cultivated until now, but which nevertheless does not bear fruit at all. He will, however, convert the infidels and will sow in that land His law, and this land that He has cultivated so much He will abandon, and it will be left full of heresies.

Therefore, the renovation of the Church will come about, and many who are present here at this sermon will see it.

The Parables of Savonarola: #2: The Fig Trees

The second parable. A fig-tree was planted which in the first year bore many figs without a single leaf, the second year it again bore many figs and a few leaves but very few, the third year it bore as many figs as it did leaves, the fourth year it bore more leaves than figs, the fifth year it bore very few figs and very many leaves, and so it came about that it bore nothing but leaves, so that not only did it not produce fruit, but moreover because of its many leaves it overshadowed other plants so that they could not grow. What do you think the gardener should do with this fig-tree? Certainly he will cut it down and throw it into the fire. This fig-tree is the tree of the Church, which though in the beginning it bore and abundance of fruit and no leaves, nevertheless it is at the point today where it bears no fruit at all, but only leaves, that is, ceremonies and shows and superfluities whereby it overshadows the other plants of the earth—which means that the prelates of the Church because of their bad example are responsible for other men falling into very many sins. The gardener will come, that is, Christ, and will cut down this fig-tree which is fruitless. Therefore the Church will renew itself.

The Parables of Savonarola: #3: The Mother and the Daughters

The third parable. There was a king who had an only son. He came upon a poor, ragged woman, spattered with mud. Moved to compassion he took her and brought her into his house, and made her his lawful bride, and had two daughters by her whom he gave in marriage to his only begotten son. This king’s wife, having lived thus for some time, began falling in love and creating a great deal of trouble with commoners and servants. The king came to know of it, and he took her and cast her out, returning her to poverty and to mud, as she had been at first. Afterwards, one of her daughters began to sin in ways similar to her mother’s and even worse, whereby the angry king sent her away, and drove her from himself and from his son, and ordered that no bread be given to her. The other daughter, not admonished by the sin and the punishment of her mother and her sister, began to sin in a like manner and was even worse than her mother and her sister had been. Tell me, what does this one deserve? Certainly, she deserves much more punishment than the mother and the sister.

I would like now to expound this parable. This king is God, who took that poor woman for His bride, that is, the synagogue of the Jews for His Church, which sinned; and you know how God drove her away from Him and sent her back into the mud where she first had been, that is, He placed her in servitude and misery and her original blindness. Two daughters are the Church of the East, of the Greeks, and the Roman Church, given as brides by God to His only begotten son Christ Jesus crucified, in which we must serve. The Church of the East sinned because of its heresies, and God ordered that she be banished from Him and from His Son Christ Jesus, and commanded that no bread be given her, that no preachers go there anymore, that none give her spiritual food or enlighten her. The other Church is the Roman one, full of simony and evils, which has sinned more than the first or the second. What do you think that she deserves? Do you not think that God wants to punish her? Of course you think so, and even more harshly than the mother and the sister, for they might justly complain to God saying: “If we have sinned, you have made us penitent, but this other one who has sinned more than we; why do you not punish her?” However, believe that the Church will soon be renewed.

From John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola, New York, NY: Fordham University Press ©1969, 1992, pgs 7-9.


  1. The charge of simony against the papacy is particularly important to grasp in the context of the coming Reformation. In the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII had waged an all out war on simony in the Church, and his war fundamentally reshaped the Western part of the Church into a feudal domain of the papacy. In the intervening centuries, simony came to be identified by the canon lawyers as a formal heresy, such that anyone guilty of it was considered to be *teaching* (not just practicing) heresy. Yet the papacy itself between Gregory and the Reformers had become so absolutely mired in simony that there was no way plausibly to defend it from the charge of formally promoting heresy.

    This is an extremely important point for understanding the whole context of the Reformation.

  2. Hi Tim, thanks for this. I understand what you are saying.

    Most of the time we folks who discuss these things, though, have a hard time even imagining that world. We may have some concept of Augustinian times, but there's just a black hole between Augustine and the Reformation.

    I have focused on Savonarola here and one other point just simply to help provide a point of orientation for the Reformation, and to fill in some of the gaps from there.

    2000 years of church history is a huge period of time, and it's hard just to dive right into the middle of it (it was hard for me). We're often much more comfortable with the period before 500 and after 1500. For those years in the middle, it seems like it's a whole different world.

  3. Yes, it is a different world. And I was applauding your post. As Protestants, we need to be much more familiar with that "black hole" you spoke of than we are. It shouldn't be a black hole to us; in some ways it's not our friend, but in many ways it is our friend. We need to be better than the Roman Catholic apologists on all this, because they often treat it like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, where anytime significant action (or "development") takes place, all you see is a vague pastel background with silhouettes running around. If we can flesh out those silhouettes, sharpen that background, the thing that we love so much (the Reformation) comes into sharper relief itself, and our appreciation for it becomes all the richer.

    1. I've recently dug out some Aquinas, and Aquinas quoting Pseudo-Dionysius on the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and I hope to get to some of this soon. None of that is easy reading, but the mere fact that a super-important Medieval theologian is unknowingly citing a sixth-century source as if it were a first-century source ought to give Roman Catholics at least some pause about the "infallibility" of their church.

    2. I've not looked into Aquinas' use of Pseudo-Dionysius. However, since I mentioned Gregory VII's reformation in the 11th century, there is a wealth of scholarly material exploring how he both preserved and yet fundamentally altered the patristic heritage available to him in terms of the doctrine of the papacy. Not only do the False Decretals play into that, but also misreading of patristic sources such as Gelasius I. And Gregory started a trend: a generation later, Gratian of Bologna was inadvertently citing canons from Gregory VII as if they were ancient patristic maxims about authority in the Church, setting up later generations to do the same. For the most part these misconstruals were not done out of deliberate malice or desire to cover up truth. But they still had serious truth-eroding effects over the centuries leading up to the Reformation.