On Syncretism

Syncretism has been one of the most enduring and devastating threats to the faithfulness of God’s people. At almost every stage of biblical history, God’s people have given in to the pressures of the surrounding cultures. Those figures who resisted these pressures provide vivid stories—the Levites who were “ordained” with the blood of their brothers (Exod 32);[1] Phinehas, who speared the Israelite man and Moabite woman engaged in sex (Numbers 27); Gideon, who tore down the altar to Baal (Judges 6); Elijah, who confronted the prophets of Baal and had them slaughtered (1 Kings 18); the many writing prophets, who likewise condemned the syncretism of the northern and southern kingdoms; Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who resisted to the point of death; Ezra, who pulled his hair out (Ezra 9) and Nehemiah, who pulled out the Israelites’ hair (Nehemiah 13). In all of these cases, the response of the righteous few is drastic—execution, condemnation, hair-pulling, and faithfulness to death.

Of course, problems with syncretism aren’t limited to the OT. elijah-kills-prophets-of-baalMany of the problems confronting the early church arose because they adopted their cultures’ beliefs and practices. This is especially true of the Corinthian church in their practice of the Lord’s Supper, though syncretism underlies many of the problems Paul addresses. The other NT writers castigate those who have gone after worldly desires or who have been swayed by pressures of the day (see Jude and 2 Peter). Syncretism with Greek and Roman culture was not the only temptation—syncretism with Judaism also presented a danger. Peter abandon table-fellowship with the Gentiles on account of the Jews, Paul regularly inveighs against the “circumcision party,” those “mutilators of the flesh,” and the book of Hebrews seems to be written to warn against the danger of abandoning the faith in favor of a return to Judaism.

I don’t mean to imply that syncretism is the temptation par excellence, or the main theme of the Bible. However, I do want to suggest that it is by no means tangential. It is a deadly sin that confronts the people of God everywhere they go. We neglect to guard against syncretism to our detriment or destruction.

So my question is: Are we as vigilant to avoid syncretism as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Adebnego? Do we have the zeal of Phinehas? The courage of Elijah? The sorrow of Ezra? Or the intransigence of Paul?

The temptation to syncretism takes many different forms, depending on the individual and his or her place in the world. A Christian entrepreneur is going to be tempted differently than a concrete laborer, a college professor, or a clergyman. Of course, there are practices and beliefs that we are all pressured to accept due to our shared culture, and we need to be aware of those (the temptation to materialism, to Americanism, etc.). However, we mustn’t stop there; we must also reflect carefully on the temptations particular to our life and vocation. Most of our readers are either in ministry or academia, so I would ask you: What pressures do ministry or the secular guild put on you? Where has the academy unconsciously (or consciously) swayed you from the faith once delivered? What beliefs and practices are you tempted to accept, or have you already accepted that, on further reflection, are not biblical but rather compromise your Christian faith and life in some way? I think these are questions we all need to face every day, and we need to listen to the prophetic voices who challenge and confront us with our own capitulation to the academy or to our broader culture. A high view of the importance of the history and tradition of the church goes a long way toward counteracting the pressures of syncretism.

Let me put a sharper edge on it: interacting with the guild (especially the secular guild, but this holds true even for the evangelical guild) is fraught with peril. The guild is not “safe.” If we approach the academy without an appropriate fear that we in our own power are unprepared to face the temptation to compromise the faith in some way, however small, we will almost certainly compromise the faith in some way, however small. Interaction with the guild or with culture must be done with fervent prayer that God would guard our hearts and minds and instill in us the faithfulness of the saints who have gone before us and contended earnestly for the faith once delivered.


[1]Thanks to Hank Voss for this point.

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About Peter Green

I am a doctoral student at Wheaton College. My dissertation is on vineyard imagery in the Old Testament, particularly as it is used to convey the theme of Creation to New Creation. My interests are (in no particular order): biblical ethics, epistemology, apologetics, sacramentology, science and faith, biblical theology, OT theology, biblical political philosophy, and intertextuality. I consider myself to be in the historic Reformed tradition, and attend a PCA church. I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary--the PCA's denominational seminary--and hope work for Reformed University Fellowship, which is the PCA's campus ministry, following my PhD studies.
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