Pope Benedict XVI on Hellenization

I was re-reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address–famous for the supposed link he makes between Islam and violence–when I came across this bit on “Hellenization,” or the shaping of Christian thought by Greek culture. He notes that this development has come under significant attack in the past century, as something foreign to biblical thought itself. The Pope’s response to these claims are nuanced:

In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieu. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

This states something quite different than a simple defense of the development of Christian thought in Greek thought-forms and language, a blind reassertion of the Hellenization process. Instead, what must be preserved is the concordance of faith and reason recognized in this process. Not necessarily those “elements” unique to Greek culture. But also, Christianity was born in lands breathing this culture–even in Israel itself, a process of Hellenization had taken place. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was that most widely known by Jews in the first century. The New Testament, itself written in Greek (except perhaps Matthew), “bears the imprint of the Greek spirit.” There can be no simple translation, then, from the New Testament to cultures other than those influenced by Greek ways of thinking, other, that is, than Western cultures. There is no bare return. The New Testament is itself doused in Hellenism. But there may be reasonable ways to express its truth in terms recognizable to cultures-other-than-Western.


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