I’m still working my way through Mark J. Edwards’ book Origen against Plato (for which I hope to do a thorough review). One thing that can be said about Edwards is that he sure knows how to turn a phrase, and I have run across many excerpts worth posting only to forego the post in light of my proposed future review. However, I ran across this one and found it too good to pass over, for it gets at a point that I have tried to make many times before: one must understand the meaning of the patristic author in light of him/herself. It has been fashionable in the past to see a technical “philosophical” word used by a patristic author and read into it the history of ancient philosophical reflection without any recourse to the 1) how the author uses it and 2) how it is used in Scripture (if at all). This, plainly put, is just bad history. I could go on, but I’ll let Edwards do the talking.

It should by now be apparent that the Bible, rather than Plato, is Origen’s manual, and the Bible, rather than Plato, must be our guide to the interpretation of his vocabulary. The concepts of satiety, refrigeration and restoration are all to be found in Origen, but even if all are borrowed form the schools it should be obvious that they do not carry with them the philosophy of the Platonists or the Stoics. A philosophical writer has no choice but to avail himself of the language coined by earlier philosophers; he is not, however, obliged — and, if he aims at originality, will refuse — to redeem the wares for which that currency was exchanged on the ancient markets. Both ancient heresiology and the study of patristics in more recent times have laboured under the fallacy that a word can never mean anything but what it was devised to mean — that it must remain for ever Stoic, Platonic or Aristotelian in tendency because it was Stoic, Platonic or Aristotelian in origin. In making this assumption the historian belies his own vocation and that of the authors whom he professes to interpret: a scholar must lean to think the thoughts of others, as a philosopher must learn to think his own.

-Mark J. Edwards, Origen against Plato (Burlington: Ashgate, 2002), 114.

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