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  • Syncretism -Compromising the message

    2012 - 07.04


    © 2012 Charles Mosley



    Acts 15

    Colossians 2:8-23

    Hebrews 1

    John 1

    John 14

    James 1


    Key Term



    combination of different beliefs: the combination of different systems of philosophical or religious belief or practice

    Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.




     Syncretism is a concept that has concerned and confused the Christian community since the first century.  The concern arises from an understanding of the unique and exclusive claims of Christianity.   The confusion arises in trying to distinguish syncretism from the concept of acculturation, both in time and locale.  Understanding syncretism helps Christians to interact with times and cultures in a transformational way without being transformed into non-Christianity in the process.


    What is syncretism


    The word syncretism has an interesting history.  The word syncretism is actually a word made up of two parts.  Syn is a Greek prefix that means together or with.  The second part cretism means of the Cretes.  Plutarch explains in a work on brotherly love that although the Cretans fought among themselves, they would reconcile when confronted by a common enemy.  Hence the idea of uniting in spite of differences.


    Although it seems that syncretism should have a good connotation, in a Christian context it is often viewed with concern.  The reason is that syncretism results in the creation of a new belief system through amalgamation.   This new belief system will contradict fundamental Christian doctrine.  Hence the essence of Christianity is lost, not through outright rejection, but through a distortion that seems to accept the Christian message in a fundamental essence found in or compatible with another belief system.


    There are several motivations that can cause Christians to engage in or accept syncretism.  One is survival.  The lost of numbers can cause believers to think that an ineffective or offensive presentation of the message is the reason why people are not coming.  Another is a misunderstanding of the basic doctrines of Christianity.  In this case people may think that they are transforming the receiving culture to Christianity,  when in fact the mixture pagan beliefs with Christian doctrine is producing a different understanding of issues such as who Christ is, salvation, God’s grace, the nature of  God’s creation and even God Himself. Not wanting to surrender what we have believed, even in the face of a clearer understanding of God’s Word, can lead to mixing beliefs.  Our desire not to be greatly, much less wholly wrong is a strong one, so we look for something to hold onto.   Syncretism can occur because a person mistakes similarity or common beliefs for essential commonality.  In short faith in Christ, as he is in truth, is pushed aside for the sake of a kind of unity with what opposes Christ.  The motivation to reduce offence or friction can be a strong impulse in a people trained to love peace.



    The importance of Basic Understanding


    The antidote to syncretism is a basic understanding of great Christian doctrines.  These doctrines include who God is ( Exodus 34:6 -7; Isaiah 45:5), the role of Christ in our salvation (I Corinthians 15: 3-5), our real nature (Romans 3:23; 1John 1:5-10),  the relationship of Christ to God  (  John 14:5 – 7; Colossians 1:18-20  and Hebrews 1:2-4), the world as God’s creation  (Genesis 1:1,  John 1:9-11, Acts 17:23-25,  Hebrews 11:2 -4), and the relationship of God to evil (James 1:16 -18; I John 1:4-6).


    The message that true fellowship with God (salvation/eternal life) can only come as a gift (grace) from God through a faith-based relationship with Christ is offensive to many. (Ephesians 2:8) Things such as sincerity, quantity of good deeds, intellectual accomplishment, cultural traditions, and greatness among people seem not to get proper recognition according to some measures of true religion (Colossians 2:21 – 23).  This is not to say  that what we do does not matter, but they are not the fundamental basis of our salvation ( Romans3:9 -24).  It does, however, matter what we do (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10)


    Christianity’s claims are exclusive.  Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”  This means that other belief systems are wrong (I John 4:1 -3).  There are not many ways to God.  The idea that so many could be deceived is repulsive to many.


    The questions that lead to Christianity are questions regarding truth, reality, and relationship to God, who is a being, as opposed to a force.   Such questions are based in an absolute, responsible, historical, and objective worldview.  What a person thinks or feels is not the primary question.  Indeed, because of this worldview we believe it is possible to see things as more or less closer to the Truth.  The question is what is real objectively.  (John 4:24)


    Christians say that there is really a true and false, right and wrong. The reference point for these determinations is  the God who has chosen speak through the Bible.




    It is important to distinguish acculturation from syncretism.  In contrast to syncretism acculturation does not try to unite in spite of seeming fundamental differences.  Acculturation seeks to express Christianity within the context of culture to the extent it can be expressed and maintain its integrity.  The implication of this is that some cultural practices may have to die, and Christian practices will be introduced into the culture.  Some cultural practices will continue in that they do not diminish Christian doctrine.   In acculturation Christianity remains intact.


    As a means of distinguishing syncretism and acculturation lets consider culture/region, accent, and message.  Accent is the sound of a culture or region. Cultures/Regions are often marked by certain central concepts (world views, mores, etc).  Accents affecting the sound a given word in various cultures is like acculturation. The message of the original culture/region of the accent remains unchanged, although it is expressed with the accented sound of a new culture.  However, if the words convey a message which is contrary to the culture originating the word, that is like syncretism.  While the source may seem Christian the message is not.  However, if the message remains consistent with the  originating culture, but the words carry a foreign accent that is like acculturation.


    Cases of Syncretism


    Acts 15.   One case of syncretism that occurred in the early Church is that of the Judizers.  These Christians tried to hold on to the Old Testament systems and to New Testament of Christ.  In Acts 15:1 we read, “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses you can not be saved’ “


    Throughout Paul’s writings and the book of Hebrews it is explained that at their heart Christianity and Judaism as a way of approaching God are incompatible.   As Paul explains in Galatians chapter 3 the law is based on righteousness through personal accomplishment (Galatians 3:3, 10-14), whereas following Christ is based on righteousness through faith.  Paul argues that these two principles can not coexist within the same system.  One is either righteous based on merit or grace, but not both.


    Some of the roots of syncretism in this situation can be seen by identifying the advocates for the approach which would change Christianity.  These were Jews who saw their exclusivity being lost.  Gentiles had for some time been recognized as accepted by God in Christ  (Acts 10 and 11).   They were being accepted without first becoming Jews.  Some Jews could not fully grasp or accept this since, as Paul points out, they were the ones through whom the promise of Christ came (Romans 9:4-5).  If the Gentiles could be accepted by God without entering Judaism, wasn’t their life as Jews a waste?


    The refusal to allow the diminution of a significant aspect of a person or a culture’s life or heritage in the presence of Christianity can lead to syncretism.  Somehow that which had value must still somehow retains significant  value in Christ, is what the advocate says.  After all it was good.1


    Paul’s response along with the other Apostles was not to deny the goodness of Judaism.  They however could not include it as essential component of coming into relationship with God.  Christians were to show respect for those practicing it, but Christians could not teach becoming a Jew as a requirement for a relationship to God, (Acts 15:11, 19-21)


    This case shows us that a motivation to syncretism can be love of the past.  In short there can be a desire not to give up our past or culture in order to embrace Christ.  There is a kind of divided loyalty.


    Colossians. There are several ideas about the nature of the variant teach that affected the Colossian Church.  One thing seems certain, however, is that while attempting to honor Christ, it actually diminished Christ.  This is the case even through the syncretism introduced relative to angels and ascetic practices which seem holy and respecting of God.


    The teaching is described as “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (ch. 2:8).  Whether this is Gnosticism or some other form of “advanced knowledge” teaching, the idea seems to be aimed at integrating Christianity into human, seemingly more sophisticated systems, than holding to basic Christian doctrine.  Syncretism sometimes portrays itself as an enlightened Christianity.


    The attractiveness of syncretism in this instance seems to be acceptance by those whom the world esteems.  Christianity, as Paul explains, is foolishness to some  (I Corinthians 1:18 -23)  There is therefore the temptation to listen to the world’s philosophies and somehow integrate their “insights” into Christian doctrine.  This way Christianity will not seem so naive.


    Paul points out in the letter to the Colossians, that such integration reduces Christ’s standing.  Christ is supreme and his grace sufficient.  Any other approach caters to the flesh and its desire for significance on the basis of some claimed merit within itself.


    The error in this case is not understanding fundamental Christian doctrine regarding who Christ is.  The idea of Christ as the link between God and Man is central and basic, having been declared by Christ Himself (John 14:6).  It cannot be changed without diminishing the very essence of the message of Christ.


    This case shows us that syncretism can grow out the desire to be accepted or inclusive.  In this instance the temptation was to be respected in current sophisticated religious thought.





    Syncretism is a serious threat to the practice of Christianity.  The desire to mix Christianity with that which we value is a real temptation.  It grows out a desire to somehow reduce tension between Christian and the environment in which it is practiced.  When this reduction comes at the expense of the essential nature of Christian doctrine syncretism is occurring.


    Syncretism needs to be distinguished from acculturation.  In acculturation the controlling factor in introducing Christianity is maintaining the integrity of Christian doctrine, while allowing its expression in various cultural forms.  For instance the marriage ceremony may vary from jumping a broom to a multiday procession, but Christian marriage is between a man and woman.



    1  A variation of this that  bears on ideas that gain acceptance in  a culture where Christianity  may be dominant  can be gained by varying this paragraph to read, “The refusal to stand holy in the face of a changing culture  can lead to syncretism.  Somehow that which  is gaining popular acceptance must be given value in Christ so that Christianity does not become irrelevant within our culture, the advocate says.  After all we must survive”

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