By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
Syncretism is the process by which aspects of one religion are assimilated into, blended with, another religion. The assimilation between them fundamentally changes both of them. The threat of syncretism has been with the church since its conception. The temptation to intertwine unbelieving philosophical thought with biblical principles was constant within a context where syncretism was the norm. Rome often mixed religious themes and borrowed deities from other religious perspectives. A good example was the fact that Rome borrowed deities from the Greek pantheon and gave them different names.
The Jews and the early Christians were frowned upon and disdained for their apparent arrogance in thinking that there was but One true deity which created all other things. The worship of local deities was quite common in the ancient world, and it was the height of arrogance to suggest that all other deities were false and empty, powerless idols. However, the worship and practice of the pagan culture roundabout the church often had an allure about it that caused some to adopt and syncretize paganism within the Christian system of thought. We see this syncretism most pronounced in the adoption of Greek philosophy into Christian thought.
The temptation to syncretize went even as far back as the Old Testament. Indeed, a large portion of the prophetic writings was dedicated to calling the people of Israel back to the worship of Yahweh, the One true God. For they often fell into idolatrous worship in which Baal and Asherah became objects of devotion. These no doubt were clear examples of Israel forsaking their covenant with their God and running after false deities, often doing so while simultaneously worshiping Yahweh. The syncretism was clear, they not only worshipped other gods, they often did so along side the worship of Yahweh.
Within the New Testament context, syncretism was very wide spread, largely due to the hellenization brought about by the exploits of Alexander the Great and those who followed after him. While Christianity in its essence forbade syncretism given its exclusive nature borrowed from its Old Testament roots, it was not immune to the many temptations to syncretize. Apart from this, there were many heretical views which vied for the soul of the newborn Christian faith. Many of these views were distortions of Christian truth which involved additions of Greek philosophical thought and other falsities which added to the confusion such syncretism brought.
While the Early Church Fathers fought hard against the rise of syncretistic manifestations of “Christianity”, this did not prevent such manifestations to pose a great threat to Christian truth. For example, the early church had to contend with Manichaeism, which was a sort of dualistic philosophy which saw the physical world as evil (This was common to Greek thinking, but not at all common to the Jewish mind-set which saw God’s creation of the physical world as good). The early church also had to deal very early on with Docetism, which was a view that denied that Jesus had a physical body. Notice the Greek underpinnings of this view; remember, for the Greeks of this stripe, the material world was evil and it was the spiritual that was considered good. Indeed, death for many Greeks was the liberation of the soul from the “prison” of the body. This runs contrary to the biblical conception of the material world in general and the material body more specifically. In fact, Docetism may have very well been the view which John wrote against calling it “antichrist” teaching. For how did John define “antichrist”? He says “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7). The church also had to contend with Neoplatonism, a view which constituted an intentional effort to combine elements of Christian thought with Platonic philosophy and oriental dualism. The early church definitely had their work cut out for them.
The very history of the great creeds of Christendom encapsulate the struggle against syncretism. The great creeds were produced in response to false teaching, and sought to protect Christian orthodoxy from the threat of syncretism. The modern Christian is not immune to this threat. As the body of Christ, we are to stand firm uncompromisingly to God’s Word and avoid mixing the thought categories of darkness with the thought patterns of the light of God’s Word.
1. Hellenization refers to the spread of Greek culture and language throughout the ancient world, most popularly brought about by Alexander the Great. This often included the syncretization of religion between various cultures.