Syncretism is the process by which aspects of one religion are assimilated into, or blended with, another religion. This leads to fundamental changes in both religions.
In the Old Testament, God was deeply concerned with the pressure and temptation toward syncretism. As the people of God moved into the Promised Land they were confronted with pagan religions. The Canaanite gods, Baal and Asherah, became objects of Israelite devotion. Later, God’s people worshiped the national gods of Assyria and Babylon. The law of God clearly warned Israel not only against abandoning Yahweh for other gods, but against worshiping other gods in addition to the true God. The prophets warned of coming judgments as the people modified their faith to accommodate foreign doctrines and practices.
The New Testament period was one of widespread syncretism. As the Greek Empire expanded, her gods mingled with the indigenous gods of conquered nations. The Roman Empire also welcomed all manner of cults and mystery religions. Christianity was not left untouched. The church fathers not only spread the gospel but labored to protect its integrity. Manichaeism (a dualistic philosophy that saw the physical as evil) crept into some doctrines. Docetism (a teaching that denied Jesus had a physical body) was a problem even as the New Testament was being written. Many forms of Neoplatonism made a conscious effort to combine elements of Christian religion with Platonic philosophy and oriental dualism. The history of the Christian creeds is the history of God’s people seeking to separate themselves from the snares of foreign religions and philosophies.
The problem is still with the church today. Non-Christian philosophies such as Marxism or existentialism seek the power of Christianity while giving up what is uniquely Christian. Syncretism continues to be a powerful tool to separate God from His people.
Every generation of Christians faces the temptation of syncretism. In our desire to be “with it” or contemporary in our practices and beliefs, we yield to the temptation of being conformed to the patterns of this world. We accept pagan practices and ideas and seek to “baptize them.” Even when we confront and engage alien religions and philosophies we have a tendency to be influenced by them. Every foreign element that creeps into Christian faith and practice is an element that weakens the purity of faith.
This article is part of the The Reformation Study Bible collection.