This post is a reply to Nathanael Baker’s recent post on Syncretism, which I very poorly replied to on his blog site, due to in part the drugged up stupor (all legal – anti biotics and pain relief) I was in and the late hour of the day I was replying.

Nathanael has raised the issue of Syncretism on his blog. Which while sounding like a modern hip ad agency is actually something that dates back to the time of Plutarch. In short Syncretism as it is understood in the modern Christian theological scene is ‘the incorporation of non-christian elements’ into Christendom. Every Christian culture in every epoch has done it. The western church does it, the eastern Church do it, they do it in Africa and Asia, they probably do it at your church (and with that I have now cut my readership).

Syncretism can be found in the Bible and while not mentioned by name (but hey neither is the word Trinity) it is still has a Biblical basis. When I think Syncretism the first thing that popped into my mind was The New Testament Church Jewish Christians who tried to force their laws on gentile Christians in order that they could become ‘real christians’. Other examples of syncretism in the Bible include Israel in the Old Testament who did a pick and mix exercise with God and opted for God and witchcraft/oracles/golden calves.

Syncretism is not just a finger pointing exercise (although my above paragraph makes it look like it is!) Take for example some Western churches fascination with materialism and the way this is incorporated into church worship practices. To get to the bottom of this syncretism and distortion of the Gospel one has to

1) Uncover and Identify the syncretism properly – e.g. name exactly what the syncretism is and how it conflicts with the Gospel ( i.e. this can’t just be a personal dislike campaign because the church doesn’t play your type of funky Gregorian hymn chants)
2) Understand why the syncretism happened – i.e. did this syncretism replace something? What symbols go with it? What has been the wider Church’s part in contributing to it?
3) Restoration or in the words of Mirsolav Volf – ‘exclusion (of the toxic) and embrace (of the good)

Of course Christianity (or any religion) always interacts with Culture. However the issues lies in how much which influences which and in what ways. For example a ‘Christian’ population who are more likely to read Playboy then their Bible are likely to have a dilution of the truth of the gospel, just as a Christian population who only have access to one or two books of the new testament (say gospels) on an irregular basis due to persecution and accessibility may also have some syncretism issues as they do not have access to the full Bible. On the other hand someone in Africa whose heremutic of the bible is from a Word of Faith perspective is also going to have syncretism issues.

What I am saying is that this issue can not be simply solved by everyone racing down to their local Christian store and grabbing a copy of the Bible and reading it from cover to cover. Nor will it be solved if we make a long list of rules of things we can and cannot do (the Pharisees tried that and look what happened there) Nor can it be solved by some huge authority (such as myself) declaring what is right and wrong. Although I am pretty bloody sure the prosperity doctrine is a load of crap.

Local communities have to take some responsibility for their own doctrine by looking at
• scripture, (The Bible)
• the universal Tradition of the church, (including looking at things like creeds)
• theological reason
• experience of God including the transformation he has had on the individual (think Holy Spirit here people!). For some Christians this of the four is what their theology is built on – which does mean syncretism is much more likely to occur.

and weighing them all up.
What we find in cases of syncretism is that normally one of these 4 is taken way out of proportion at the expense of the other 3 (or the other 3 are manipulated to fit the
Favoured 1) The church in the past has had some huge syncretic mind explosions. E.g the Dutch Reformed church and Apartheid which if looking at the four aspects above mainly revolved around the misinterpretation of tiny selected bits of scripture e.g. darkness not mixing with light this of course resulted in tactfully ignoring things like the creeds.

As Nathanael quotes in his post – simply declaring ‘Jesus is Lord’ means nothing if our practice does not line up with this. The responsibility lies with every committed Christian to live out ‘loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength.’ For those in leadership the bar is even higher (as stated in James) and one must make sure ones congregation/members/people being ministered are given access to the full breadth and width of Jesus and his Gospel be they culturally favoured topics or not.

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