Prisca Theologia and Pia Philosophia

Just as the idea of a great yawning antithesis between all things non-Christian and all things Christian can be overdrawn, yielding pessimistic excesses, it seems that the idea of a “prisca theologia” (ancient theology) in which the best of non-Christian thought virtually mirrors later developed Christian ideas, can be overdrawn, yielding optimistic excesses.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), king of early Renaissance Platonists, translated a 14th-century manuscript of an older Greek work known as the Corpus Hermeticum, which was believed to be a work by one Hermes Trismegistus and was dated to the time of Moses. Ficino and his contemporaries joyously celebrated the fact they discovered from the contents of the Corpus that apparently much of Christian theology had been known (albeit in a veiled, less developed form) by the best educated pagans many generations prior to the actual advent of Christianity. Ficino, indeed, wrote of a grand lineage of six pre-Christian philosophers – Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaophemus, Pythagoras, Philolaus, and Plato – who together developed the prisca theologia. Writes Ficino:

…In this way, from a wondrous line of six theologians emerged a single system of ancient theology, harmonious in every part, which traced its origins to Mercurius [Hermes Trismegistus] and reached absolute perfection with the divine Plato. Mercurius wrote many books pertaining to the knowledge of divinity,…often speaking not only as philosopher but as prophet….He foresaw the ruin of the old religion, the rise of the new faith, the coming of Christ, the judgement to come, the resurrection of the race, the glory of the blessed, and the torments of the damned. - Cited in Brian P. Copenhaver and Charles B. Schmidt, A History of Western Philosophy, Vol. 3: Renaissance Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992), pg. 147

Unfortunately for this joyous story, actually the Corpus Hermeticum was written early in the Christian era, not the time of Moses. In this sense, its celebration as an early non-Christian parallel with Christianity goes along with the mistaken Medieval attribution of the Neoplatonic works of Pseudo-Dionysius to the Dionysius whom Paul converted in Acts 17, the warping of papalist theology by the spurious Donation of Constantine and the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, and the like. To be sure, all these problematic attributions of authority to documents which were either fraudulent or not clearly seen for what they were had very human causes that, upon careful study of the circumstances often render the errors of the past based upon their acceptance much more understandable. We ought not to hold ourselves better than those who in times of great distress (the feudal chaos of post-Carolingian Europe which produced the Donation and the False Decretals) or starry-eyed rediscovery (the early Renaissance) made errors of judgment which had long-lasting and systematic repercussions. We likely wouldn’t have done any better ourselves, had we been there.

Still, keeping in mind the fact that for all our Modern sophistication we are able to be just as frail and fallible as our fathers, there is still a benefit to hindsight. Somewhere or another I read someone learned saying that one big problem with the Medievals was that, books being exceedingly rare and as a general class of things quasi-sacred, they had such a high reverence for them that they would believe just about anything if it was found in a book – especially an old book. The problems to which such a naive trust in the written word – or perhaps more accurately, such a naive trust in our culture’s (or subculture’s) interpretations of the written word – can lead are evident to any serious student of history and culture. While we should not spurn the wise counsel of the fathers, neither should we be too hasty to believe them unconditionally – the best of men are men at best. As Peter Abelard wrote in Sic et Non, all books not belonging to the canon of Sacred Scripture “are to be read with full freedom to criticize, and with no obligation to accept unquestioningly; otherwise they way would be blocked to all discussion, and posterity be deprived of the excellent intellectual exercise of debating difficult questions of language and presentation.”

The notion of a yawning, unbridgeable, antithetical chasm between all things non-Christian and all things Christian is a serious exaggeration of the truth. On the other hand, the idea that even after the Fall man’s rational powers remain able to discern, explain, and preserve really substantial outlines of truth such that perhaps only by changing a few words and phrases Plato or Aristotle might be thought of as Christians-in-disguise is a serious exaggeration of the truth. Yet, like all great myths, both of these exaggerations have a kergyma of the truth buried deep inside. The pessimistic antithesis idea retains the truth that whatever prisca theologia might actually exist, it always has to be subject to ongoing dialogue with and correction by the final theology, the revelation of God in Christ. The optimistic continuity idea retains the truth that at the end of the day God’s creation does actually reveal something and men are actually able to understand it in more than a trivial manner.

Contrary to the optimists, there really is such a thing as being taken captive by philosophy which is according to the basic principles of the world rather than according to Christ (Col. 2:8). However, contrary to the pessimists, there really is such a thing as a pia philosophia (pious philosophy) which prepares the way for Faith and after Faith is embraced, continues to function as the ancilla theologiae (handmaiden of theology). While we should remember that the antithesis-thinkers are properly interested in safeguarding the integrity of the final revelation, at the same time we should remember that for synthesizers like Ficino, the goal of the whole project was not some muddle-brained attempt to mix oil and water on account of a silly fascination with self-evidently dumb pagan ideas, but rather, as Ficino himself put it, a noble quest to “free philosophy, God’s holy gift, from impiety…[and] to save holy religion from detestable ignorance.” [ibid., 148]. Seen in this light the prisca theologia and the pia philosophia can hardly be all that objectionable.

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