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Syncretism is the process by which elements of one religion are assimilated into another religion resulting in a change in the fundamental tenets or nature of those religions. It is the union of two or more opposite beliefs, so that the synthesized form is a new thing. It is not always a total fusion, but may be a combination of separate segments that remain identifiable compartments. Originally a political term, "syncretism" was used to describe the joining together of rival Greek forces on the Isle of Crete in opposition to a common enemy.

Syncretism is usually associated with the process of communication. It can originate with either the sender or the receptor of the message. The sender may introduce syncretistic elements in a conscious attempt for relevance or by the presentation of a limited and distorted part of the message. It may happen unconsciously as the result of an inadequate or faulty grasp of the message. The receptor will interpret the message within the framework of his world view. This may distort the data but fit his values.

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Specifically we are faced with a problem of meaning. What is actually understood by words, symbols, or actions as expressed in creeds, or application to certain needs, is the test of the presence of syncretism. The receptor is the one who assigns meaning. It is therefore essential that the sender communicate with words or symbols that are not merely approximate equivalents, but dynamic equivalents, of meaning.

Syncretism of the Christian gospel occurs when critical or basic elements of the gospel are replaced by religious elements from the host culture. It often results from a tendency or attempt to undermine the uniqueness of the gospel as found in the Scriptures or the incarnate Son of God. The communication of the gospel involves the transmission of a message with supra - cultural elements between a variety of cultures. This includes the disembodiment of the message from one cultural context and the reembodiment of it in a different cultural context.

Cross - cultural communication of the gospel always involves at least three cultural contexts. The gospel message was originally given in a specific context. The receiver / sender assigns meaning to that message in terms of his own context. The receptor seeks to understand the message within a third context. The problem of syncretism will be encountered with each new outreach of the church and also as the culture changes around an established church.

The Bible reveals syncretism as a long - standing tool of Satan to separate God from his people. It strikes at the heart of the first commandment. Beyerhaus notes a threefold answer in the OT to the challenge of external syncretism: segregation, eradication, and adaptation. Pressures from early Canaanite practices with Baal and Asherah were followed by the demands of the national gods of Assur and Babylon. Internally the prophets of Israel sought to enforce the obligatory nature of Israel's holy traditions, to apply the revealed will of God to actual situations, and to forcefully present the eschatological vision of God's continuing control, justice, and promises.

The NT was born in a melee as rulers sought to blend cultures through syncretistic monotheism, all forms of the same God. All the gods of Egypt, Persia, and Babylon became Greek. The influence of Mani spread from Africa to China. Esoteric knowledge vied with unique, historical revelation. Rome harbored all cults and mystery religions. Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth each boasted syncretistic gods seeking to absorb the church. NT confrontations include Simon Magus, the Jerusalem Council, the Epistle to the Colossians, combating Jewish thought mixed with early Gnosticism, and the rebuke of the church at Pergamum. Against these forces the church developed its creeds, canon, and celebrations. The Christmas celebration date was set over against the festival of the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, in protest against a major attempt to create a syncretistic imperial religion.

Visser't Hooft discusses the many syncretistic pressures of the NT times exerted by Judaism, Gnosticism, emperor worship, and the mystery cults. It is helpful to study the books of Hebrews, 1 John, and the Revelation from the perspective of defending against syncretism. The NT canon and the recognized creed became the church's two greatest weapons against the growth and transmission of syncretism. Church history is filled with the struggle against syncretism from political, social, religious, and economic sources. Syncretistic pressure can be seen today. In our global - village context secular humanism seems to be the common ground for solving shared problems. The values of this world view strive for a place in the church's response to both the demands for conformity and the cries for liberation confronting it.

In the striving by missionaries for an indigenous national church with a contextualized gospel, the danger of syncretism is ever present in attempts at accommodation, adjustment, and adaptation. Tippett reminds us that while striving for relevance we must remember that in communication only message is transmitted, not meaning. Beyerhaus points out three steps in biblical adaptation:

  1. Discriminating selection of words, symbols, and rites, e.g., "Logos."

  2. Rejection of that which is clearly incompatible with biblical truth.

  3. Reinterpretation by a complete refilling of the selected rite or symbol with a truly Christian meaning.

The supracultural teachings of Scripture must be judge of both culture and meaning as God works through men using various forms to bring all creation under his lordship.

In the history of theology the term "syncretism" is used specifically to define two movements aimed at unification. In the Lutheran tradition, George Calixtus (1586 - 1656) attempted to reconcile Lutheran thought with Roman Catholicism on the basis of the Apostles' Creed. This precipitated a syncretistic controversy that was to last for many years. In Roman Catholicism "syncretism" refers to the attempt to reconcile Molinist and Thomist theology.

S R Imbach
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

W A Visser't Hooft, No Other Name; H Kraemer, Religion and the Christian Faith; T Yamamori and C R Taber, eds., Christopaganism or Indigenous Christianity; H Lietzmann, The Beginnings of the Church Universal.


Catholic Information

From sygkretizein (not from sygkerannynai.)

An explanation is given by Plutarch in a small work on brotherly love ("Opera Moralia", ed. Reiske, VII, 910). He there tells how the Cretans were often engaged in quarrels among themselves, but became immediately reconciled when an external enemy approached. "And that is their so-called Syncretism." In the sixteenth century the term became known through the "Adagia" of Erasmus, and came into use to designate the coherence of dissenters in spite of their difference of opinions, especially with reference to theological divisions. Later, when the term came to be referred to sygkerannynai, it was inaccurately employed to designate the mixture of dissimilar or incompatible things or ideas. This inexact use continues to some extent even today.

(1) Syncretism is sometimes used to designate the fusion of pagan religions. In the East the intermixture of the civilizations of different nations began at a very early period. When the East was hellenized under Alexander the Great and the Diadochi in the fourth century B. C., the Grecian and Oriental civilizations were brought into contact, and a compromise to a large extent effected. The foreign deities were identified with the native (e.g. Serapis = Zeus, Dionysus) and a fusion of the cults succeeded. After the Romans had conquered the Greeks, the victors, as is known, succumbed to the culture of the vanquished, and the ancient Roman religion became completely hellenized. Later the Romans gradually received all the religions of the peoples whom they subdued, so that Rome became the "temple of the whole world". Syncretism reached its culmination in the third century A. D. under the emperors Caracalla, Heliogabalus, and Alexander Severus (211-35). The countless cults of the Roman Empire were regarded as unessential forms of the same thing-a view which doubtless strengthened the tendency towards Monotheism. Heliogabalus even sought to combine Christianity and Judaism with his religion, the cult of the sun-god. Julia Mamæa, the mother of Alexander Severus, attended in Alexandria the lectures of Origen, and Alexander placed in his lararium the images of Abraham and Christ.

(2) A modern tendency in the history of religions sees in the Biblical revealed religion a product of syncretism, the fusion of various religious forms and views. As regards the Old Testament, the Chanaanite myth, the Egyptian, Old Babylonian, and Persian religions are regarded as the sources of Israelitic religion, the latter itself having developed from Fetichism and Animism into Henotheism and Monotheism. It is sought to explain the origin of Christianity from the continuation and development of Jewish ideas and the influx of Brahmanistic, Buddhist, Græco-Roman, and Egyptian religious notions, and from the Stoic and Philonic philosophy; it is held to have received its development and explanation especially. from the neo-Platonic philosophy. That Judaism and Christianity agree with other religions in many of their external forms and ideas, is true ; many religious ideas are common to all mankind. The points of agreement between the Babylonian religions and the Jewish. faith, which provoked a lively discussion some years ago after the appearance of Friedrich Delitzsch's "Babel und Bibel", maybe explained in so far as they exist (e.g.) as due to an original revelation, of which traces, albeit tainted with Polytheism, appear among the Babylonians. In many cases the agreement can be shown to be merely in form, not in content; in others it is doubtful which religion contained the original and which borrowed. As to the special doctrines of the Bible search has been vainly made for sources from which they might have been derived. Catholic theology holds firmly to revelation and to the foundation of Christianity by Jesus of Nazareth.

(3) The Syncretistic Strife is the name given to the theological quarrel provoked by the efforts of Georg Calixt and his supporters to secure a basis on which the Lutherans could make overtures to the Catholic and the Reformed Churches. It lasted from 1640 to 1686. Calixt, a professor in Helmstedt, had through his travels in England, Holland, Italy, and France, through his acquaintance with the different Churches and their representatives, and through his extensiVe study, acquired a more friendly attitude towards the different religious bodies than was then usual among the majority of Lutheran theologians. While the latter firmly adhered to the "pure doctrine", Calixt was not disposed to regard doctrine as the one thing necessary in order to be a Christian, while in doctrine itself he did not regard everything as equally certain and important. Consequently, he advocated unity between those who were in agreement concerning the fundamental minimum, with liberty as to all less fundamental points. In regard to Catholicism, he was prepared (as Melanchthon once was) to concede to the pope a primacy human in origin, and he also admitted that the Mass might be called a sacrifice. On the side of Calixt stood the theological faculties of Helmstedt, Rinteln, and Königsberg; opposed to him were those of Leipzig, Jena, Strasburg, Giessen, Marburg, and Greifswald. His chief opponent was Abraham Calov. The Elector of Saxony was for political reasons an opponent of the Reformed Church, because the other two secular electors (Palatine and Brandenburg) were "reformed", and were getting more and more the advantage of him. In 1649 he sent to the three dukes of Brunswick, who maintained Helmstedt as their common university, a communication in which he voices all the objections of his Lutheran professors, and complains that Calixt wished to extract the elements of truth from all religions, fuse all into an entirely new religion, and so provoke a violent schism. In 1650 Calov was called to Wittenberg as professor, and he signalized his entrance into office with a vehement attack on the Syncretists in Helmstedt. An outburst of polemical writings followed. In 1650 the dukes of Brunswick answered the Elector of Saxony that the discord should not be allowed to increase, and proposed a meeting of the political councillors. Saxony, however, did not favour this suggestion. An attempt to convene a meeting of theologians was not more successful. The theologians of Wittenberg and Leipzig now elaborated a new formula, in which ninety-eight heresies of the Helmstedt theologians were condemned. This formula (consensus) was to be signed by everyone who wished to remain in the Lutheran Church. Outside Wittenberg and Leipzig, however, it was not accepted, and Calixt's death in 1656 was followed by five years of almost undisturbed peace. The strife was renewed in Hesse-Cassel, where Landgrave Wilhelm VI sought to effect a union between his Lutheran and Reformed subjects, or at least to lessen their mutual hatred. In 1661 he had a colloquy held in Cassel between the Lutheran theologians of the University of Rinteln and the Reformed theologians of the University of Marburg. Enraged at this revival of the Syncretism of Calixt, the Wittenberg theologians in vehement terms called on the Rimteln professors to make their submission, whereupon the latter answered with a detailed defence. Another long series of polemical treatises followed. In Brandenburg-Prussia the Great Elector (Frederick William I) forbade (1663) preachers to speak of the disputes between the Evangelical bodies. A long colloquy in Berlin (Sept., 1662-May, 1663) led only to fresh discord. In 1664 the elector repeated his command that preachers of both parties should abstain from mutual abuse, and should attribute to the other party no doctrine which was not actually held by such party. Whoever refused to sign the form declaring his intention to observe this regulation, was deprived of his position (e.g. Paul Gerhardt, writer of religious songs). This arrangement was later modified, in that the forms were withdrawn, and action was taken only against those who disturbed the peace. The attempts of the Wittenberg theologians to declare Calixt and his school un-Lutheran and heretical were now met by Calixt's son, Friedrich Ulrich Calixt, The latter defended the theology of his father, but also tried to show that his doctrine did not so very much differ from that of his opponents. Wittenberg found its new champion in Ægidius Strauch, who attacked Calixt with all the resources of learning, polemics, sophistry, wit, cynicism, and abuse. The Helmnstedt side was defended by the celebrated scholar and statesman, Hermann Conring. The Saxon princes now recognized the danger that the attempt to carry through the "Consensus" as a formula of belief might lead to a fresh schism in the Lutheran Church, and might thus render its position difficult in the face of the Catholics. The proposals of Calov and his party to continue the refutation and to compel the Brunswick theologians to bind themselves under obligation to the old Lutheran confession, were therefore not carried into effect. On the contrary the Saxon theologians were forbidden to continue the strife in writing. Negotiations for peace then resulted, Duke Ernst the Pious of Saxe-Gotha being especially active towards this end, and the project of establishing a permanent college of theologians to decide theological disputes was entertained. However, the negotiations with the courts of Brunswick, Mecklenburg, Denmark, and Sweden were as fruitless as those with the theological faculties, except that peace was maintained until 1675. Calov then renewed hostilities. Besides Calixt, his attack was now directed particularly against the moderate John Musæus of Jena. Calov succeeded in having the whole University of Jena (and after a long resistance Musæus himself) compelled to renounce Syncretism. But this was his last victory. The elector renewed his prohibition against polemical writings. Calov seemed to give way, since in 1683 he asked whether, in the view of the danger which France then constituted for Germany, a Calixtinic Syncretism with "Papists" and the Reformed were still condemnable, and whether in deference to the Elector of Brandenburg and the dukes of Brunswick, the strife should not be buried by an amnesty, or whether, on the contrary, the war against Syncretism should be continued. He later returned to his attack on the Syncretists, but died in 1686, and with his death the strife ended. The result of the Syncretist Strife was that it lessened religious hatred and promoted mutual forbearance. Catholicism was thus benefited, as it came to be better understood and appreciated by Protestants. In Protestant theology it prepared the way for the sentimental theology of Pietism as the successor of fossilized orthodoxy.

(4) Concerning Syncretism in the doctrine of grace, see CONTROVERSIES ON GRACE, VI, 713.

Publication information Written by Klemens Löffler. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV. Published 1912. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York


(1) FRIEDLÄNDER, Darstellungen aus der Sittengesch. Roms, IV (8th ed., Leipzig, 1910), 119-281; CUMONT, Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (Paris, 1907) ; WENDLAND, Die hellenistisch-römische Kultur in ihren Beziehungen zu Judentum u. Christentum (Tübingen, 1907); REVILLE, La religion à Rome sous les Sévères (Paris, 1886).

(2) SCHANZ, Apologie des Christentums, II (3rd ed., Freiburg, 1905); WEBER, Christl, Apologetik (Freiburg, 1907), 163-71; REISCHLE, Theologie u. Religionsgesch. (Tübingen, 1904).

(3) DORNER, Gesch. der protest. Theol. (Munich, 1867), 606-24; HENKE, Georg. Calixtus u. seine seit, I-II (Halle, 1853-60).

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