Last spring I conducted a seminar tour to Renaissance Italy. Europe was experiencing its seasonal rebirth; Christendom was celebrating Resurrection victory and Easter newness: everything conspired to reinforce the impact of that amazing epoch heralding the Reformation which John Addington Symonds referred to as “the fascination of a golden dream.” Our regular itinerary gave us Milan’s La Scala opera, the Byzantine magnificence of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Petrarch’s home at Arqua, the breathtaking Giotto frescoes in Padua, and Florence over the Easter weekend. But an unscheduled theological “extra” was provided in the Renaissance capital: a dialogue of more than routine interest.

It was Easter Monday. On Easter day we had spent time with Riccardo Paul, who is carrying on valiant evangelical missionary work in Florence under the aegis of the Worldwide European Fellowship; then for two days we had made detailed visits to the Duomo, Ghiberti’s golden “doors of paradise” at the Baptistry of San Giovanni, Michelangelo’s David at the Uffizi, Santa Croce, and the house where Christian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning lived.

Now, back at our pensione—once a Renaissance palace—we were assembled for one of my lectures. The subject: pre-Reformer Savonarola, who had been burned at the stake on May 23, 1498, and his ashes thrown into the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio. Just before the execution, the bishop declared: “I separate you from the Church Militant and from the Church Triumphant.” Replied Savonarola, in words worthy of Luther a generation later: “You may separate me from the Church Militant, but only God can separate me from the Church Triumphant.”

As may be evident, I am a Savonarola buff; but I recognize the friar’s ...

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