Savonarola: The Rise and Fall
of a Renaissance Prophet
by Donald Weinstein
Yale, 400 pages, $38
No prophet is born in a vacuum. That is one of the many offered learned in Donald Weinstein’s excellent new book, Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. Weinstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and a leading authority on Savonarola and the Italian Renaissance, has written a nuanced and engaging study of a man too often caricatured for his “bonfires of the vanities” and apocalyptic visions.
While theatrical dramatics are certainly an important part of the renegade Dominican’s historical significance, Weinstein explores instead the unique political, social, and religious contexts that made his rise possible and his fall all but inevitable, and the study is particularly valuable for its detailed yet clarifying descriptions of the never-ending political factionalism that characterizes so much of late-medieval Italian society. Weinstein shows how Savonarola was deftly able to navigate the conflicts between Florence’s republicans, the Medici, the French throne, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Rome by using his prophetic voice to spread a unique and infectious blend of republican virtues, social reform, and apocalypticism.
Savonarola is also important for its sensitive treatment of the prophet’s eventual confession, which was given only after several hours of torture with the strappado, in which the victim’s hands are tied behind his back and then suspended by his wrists from the ceiling. Rather than either simply dismissing the validity of his confession or rejecting the sincerity of Savonarola’s religious convictions, Weinstein argues that torture made Savonarola doubt his own status as a prophet—a reading that both psychologically perceptive and humanizing.
Weinstein concludes we should not dismiss Savonarola as a fanatic or charlatan, as that would obscure “his noble vision and slights his strenuous efforts on behalf of social just and political liberty.” Nor should we exalt him as a saint, putting him “beyond the reach of human understanding.” Instead, we should integrate “the irascible puritan at war with his world, the charismatic preacher who . . . adapted ‘his lies’ to the times, the ascetic contemplative enraptured by divine love, and the militant herald of a new age.” That is precisely what Weinstein has done in this fine piece of scholarship.
—Ryan Sayre Patrico is a doctoral student in history at Yale University.
The Case for Polarized Politics:
Why America Needs
by Jeffrey Bell,
Encounter, 302 pages, $29.95
With social conservatism now becoming anathema in even some right-wing circles, Jeffrey Bell tries to recapture a very old and a very timely narrative: namely, that American social conservatism represents a steady “alternative Enlightenment” to the various stages of “left-Enlightenment” through which Europe has processed and that the job of conservatives today is to defend their version of Enlightenment values.
Bell writes that the Enlightenment arose with “two wings.” The first wing is the belief that humans are “rational beings possessing free will” and equal rights given to them by their creator. The second wing, upon which Bell hangs many ideological ills of the past four centuries, stems from a corruption beginning, he says, with Rousseau’s notion of “natural man” and terminating in a perpetual drive for boundless license.
Tying American social conservatism to this strain of thought enables Bell to acquit thinkers like Locke, Montesquieu, and the Founding Fathers of charges of historical radicalism or theological novelty. This thesis also enables him to introduce another key dichotomy of the book: commoners versus elites.
For as much as he pillories Rousseau, Bell also rebuffs Hegel and his notion of progress through a dialectic driven by world-historical leaders, seeing it as a destructive paradigm precisely because of its faith in elite influence. This enables him to dust off the old argument for the supremacy of the so-called Anglo-Saxon view of liberty, which he claims only American social conservatives still understand. Conjuring visions of unholy empires and feudal bondage, Bell proclaims that “the idea of equality never gained a solid foothold in continental Europe,” which remains plagued by a temptation to “unitary rule.”
The fundamental disjuncture between American and European history is an almost endlessly fascinating topic, and attempting to summarize Bell’s entire narrative would spoil some of the pleasure of reading through his elaborate build-up. But the book’s conclusion may engender some lively disagreement. Quoting Claremont professor Charles Kesler, Bell repeats his claim that “for American conservatives, the main thing worth conserving is equality.” Those inclined to a more continental or Catholic conservatism may question whether this claim is indeed authentically conservative or whether it is more akin to what libertarian Frank Meyer termed “fusionism.” One thing it unquestionably is, though, is American.
—Matthew T. Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things.
Evangelicals and Nicene Faith
edited by Timothy George
Baker Academic, 272 pages, $24.99
In the early centuries of the Church, local Christian communities disputed the proper date on which to celebrate Easter, the suitability of re-baptizing apostates, and even the precise scope of the biblical canon. But there was no widespread disagreement about the divinity of Jesus Christ. The joint testimony of the churches witnessed to the “great dogma,” which found credal expression at Nicea.
In this collection of essays, prominent Evangelical thinkers—including Thomas Oden, Ralph Wood, and Gerald Bray, as well as the Lutheran Carl Braaten—reflect on the Nicene Creed in an effort to reclaim for Evangelicals the apostolic heritage of the early Church. The editor, Timothy George, a Southern Baptist who serves as dean of Beeson Divinity School, notes that this retrieval of the Creed is not intended to supplant the Bible, but to affirm what the Church teaches and confesses precisely on the basis of God’s Word. He shows that the traditional slogan, “No creed but the Bible,” can easily devolve into a faith without content. The Creed, then, is not an unwanted accretion, but (as the Reformers fully understood) the primitive rule of faith by which the Church vigilantly explains the Old and New Testament.
Of course, the Nicene Creed has long been under attack. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Adolf von Harnack notoriously concluded that the Council of Nicea (with its metaphysically tinged homousion) represented the triumph of Hellenistically educated clergy over uncomplicated Hebraic faith.
More recently, certain theologians speak of the Niceanum as doxology, but empty it of its ostensive and descriptive dimensions. Others argue that the contingency and provisionality of human thought cannot be overcome by creeds of any kind. But these positions are unable to sustain Nicea’s intentions, with the Creed mediating (with the necessary qualifications) actual and irreversible states of affairs.
In this book, the credal claims of Nicea—that Jesus is consubstiantial with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is adored together with the Father and the Son—are presented as conclusively and enduringly true. Evangelicals and Nicene Faith offers a learned and spirited testimony to the common Christian conviction that, as Dei Verbum expressed it, God’s revelation abides perpetually in its full integrity for all generations.
—Thomas G. Guarino is a professor of systematic theology at
Seton Hall University and co-chairman of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.