What Is Syncretism?

Learn Why Syncretism and Christianity Cannot Be Mixed

Syncretism
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Syncretism Definition

Syncretism is the mixing together of two or more unrelated religions. It has entered the news recently as people increasingly seek to reconcile the beliefs of Islam and Christianity. However, syncretism has a long history, dating back to the Jews' exodus from Egypt into the Promised Land.

History of Syncretism in Judaism

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, Aaron and the people had made a golden calf, mixing worship of Yahweh with the idolatry of Egypt.

This was a direct violation of the First Commandment: "I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me."

God the Father knew pagan gods would be a temptation to the Jews when they entered Canaan. That was why he ordered Joshua to wipe out the Canaanite people and their false religions.

Syncretism continued through the period of the Judges. Even though Judaism was the lawful religion in Israel, many Jews, like Gideon's father, also worshiped pagan deities, such as Baal. After Solomon became king, this forbidden mixing of beliefs continued. His many foreign wives introduced Solomon to their gods and he made sacrifices to them, although he knew better.

The kings following Solomon wavered between sole worship of Yahweh and an unholy syncretism allowing devotion to the false gods popular in the region. One of the most notorious offenders was King Ahab, who together with his wife Jezebel, put many of the prophets of Yahweh to the sword.

The prophet Elijah rose up to oppose them and triumphed with a colossal display of God's power at Mount Carmel.

Syncretism in Christianity

In New Testament times, syncretism remained a problem, as converts and false teachers tried to introduce untrue beliefs into Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 10:18-22, the apostle Paul warned Christians not to fall prey to idolatry, saying the sacrifices of pagans are made to demons.

He told them to avoid the syncretism of combining Greek philosophy with Christianity, in Colossians 2:8:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (NIV)

Many centuries later, theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) also tried to combine classical philosophy with Christianity. During the Reformation, the Lutheran theologian George Calixtus (1586-1656) proposed reconciling the differences among the Lutheran Church, Reformed Church, and Roman Catholic Church, so everyone could be baptized and take communion at any church.

Syncretism has long been a problem in missionary efforts, where indigenous converts try to hold onto their previous pagan beliefs and mix them in with their newly acquired Christianity. It also plays a part in the popular Prosperity Gospel, which blends Christianity with positive thinking, visualization, and materialism.       

A prime example of syncretism is New Age, which combines various aspects of Christianity, Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, along with Wicca and Native American beliefs, throwing in astrology, spiritualism, and positive thinking.

Despite efforts to prove the similarities between Christianity and other faiths, Christianity cannot be blended with any other religion because it is unique. Only Christianity has grace, God's unmerited favor freely bestowed on followers. Instead of requiring members to do something to earn their way to salvation, Christianity calls people to receive forgiveness and heaven solely through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Only Christianity teaches that righteousness cannot be attained through personal striving:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18a, NIV)

Bible References to Syncretism 

Deuteronomy 5:7; Joshua 23:16; 1 Samuel 7:3; 2 Chronicles 33:1-7; Isaiah 44:6; Hebrews 13:9.

Example

Syncretism tries to reconcile two religions but always requires compromise.

(Sources: The Creeds of Cristendom, Philip Schaff; International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, general editor; Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor; gotquestions.org; bible.knowing-jesus.com; lutherantheologystudygroup.blogspot.com.)