What is Prisca Theologia?

What is Prisca Theologia? March 10, 2013

At the recent BYU Church History symposium “Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Ancient World” Samuel Brown presented a paper on “The Prisca Theology in Early Mormonism.”   He has given another related paper on “Prisca Theologia in the Book of Mormon.”

It seems to me that Brown is using the term Prisca Theologia in such a broad sense as to render it essentially meaningless.  In its strictest sense, Prisca Theologia is a Latin phrase meaning “the old/ancient theology.”  It is a technical term probably first used in the early Renaissance by Florentine scholar Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) which refers to the belief that a lineage of ancient philosophers taught a philosophical wisdom that parallels and complements the biblical Hebrew and Christian revelations.  It was fundamentally a movement by para-pagan Renaissance philosophers and magicians to attempt to legitimize and Christianize a series of pagan books that they believed contained authentic philosophical and magical wisdom.  Although the list of the philosophers and texts of the Prisca Theologia varies, it generally includes Zoroaster (Chaldean Oracles), Hermes (Corpus Hermeticum), Orpheus, Pythagoras (Golden Verses) and Plato.  The essence of the movement was the syncretistic Christianization of pagan philosophy, magic, astrology, alchemy, theurgy, etc..  (One can see these ideas reflected in Raphael’s marvelous painting the “School of Athens.”)

More broadly, several early Christian theologians (e.g. Clement, Origen, Augustine) also believed that contemporary (neo) Platonic philosophy was largely compatible with Christianity.  Plato, through reason, taught the same truths as the biblical Prophets taught by revelation.  This movement seems to have begun with the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who attempted in his massive works to show that the Bible and Plato taught essentially the same fundamental doctrines.  In another sense, the attempts of medieval scholasticism to synthesize Aristotle and Arabic philosophy with Christian theology reflect this same tendency.

Notice the essence of all of these movements is an attempt to synthesize Christianity with Greek philosophy.  The broader phenomena of the search for lost ancient wisdom (e.g. seeking the Hebrew Bible and Kabbalistic knowledge), and the more narrow syncretization of Christianity with Hellenistic philosophy is not Prisca Theologia.  Prisca Theologia is only one form of the attempt to synthesize pagan philosophy and Christianity.  Both share the belief that pagan philosophy reveals through reason the same truths that the Bible reveals through revelation.

Be that as it may, Joseph Smith’s search for ancient lost revealed prophetic wisdom has essentially nothing to do with the the Renaissance concept of a Prisca Theologia, or even the broader movement attempting to Platonize Christianity.  Joseph Smith made no claims regarding the authenticity of the pagan philosophical traditions.  He did not attempt to synthesize Mormonism and Neoplatonism.  Nor did he show the slightest interest in the philosophies of men, even when mingled with scripture as found among the Prisca Theologians.  I’m not sure if there is any conceptual benefit that can be derived by labeling Joseph Smith’s search for lost ancient revelation Prisca Theologia.


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