On Syncretism and the Synthetic Church – Part II

The Christian Church is a syncretic institution; borrowing language and thought systems, rituals and organization, from every culture it encounters. From the time that Jesus was crucified, to the drafting of Saint Paul’s first letter, the Church was adapting, changing, learning to communicate to an ever-widening audience, synthesizing their diverse beliefs and values, as if they were pulling together thousands of individual threads to form a single piece of cloth.


Good scholarship cannot view this as a negative, because it is true.


Recognition of the truth and abandoning what is false, this is a pillar of the faith.


The Christian Church, emerging as it did from the traditions of the Pharisaic Judaism, is the first great syncretic system of beliefs


This is not a negative commentary.


There is nothing pejorative in these statements of fact. It is merely a statement of what is, the inevitable result of inter-cultural dialogue.[i]


The Church has handled our natural inclination toward syncretism and synthesis with caution and diligence, too much, always acting to filter our syncretic tendencies, to manage them, to mitigate them, seeking to include and affirm outside ideas only in the narrow light of orthodoxy.


This always involves considerable mental gymnastics, for instance, in the Church’s desire to incorporate the writings of the Hellenistic philosophers, such as; Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, into its cannon, the church felt compelled to find in the writing a prefiguring of the coming of Jesus. They found a way to say that, while the great philosophers were not Christians, they were nevertheless visited by the Holy Spirit and given a vision of the coming of Christ, thereby legitimating their work, allowing for its use as a tool in the construction of a Hellenic/Christian world-view.


The record of the Church on this score is one of mixed success, marked by a constant application of effort. Depending on who you talk with, you will get a different idea of how much and to what extent the Christian tradition has syncretized itself with other traditions.


The truth is this; the Christian narrative is one of continuous syncretization, from the myth of the Virgin Birth, to the Saint Constantine’s vision of the Chi-rho at the battle of the Milvian Bridge…and beyond.


There is little that differentiates the customs and rituals of the Christian tradition, after its transformation into the Imperial Church from the traditions of the Indo-European culture that gave birth to it.


At the beginning of the Christian movement, Jews looked at Christians in their own community as people who were guilty of syncretizing their tradition with the customs of the broader Greco-Roman world.


In the time of Christ, the Sadducees (the most traditional sect of Jews in Judea, in the 1st century) would have named any Jew who held a belief in angels or the resurrection of the dead, a syncretizer.[ii] The chief proponents of such doctrines at that were the Pharisees, a sect to which both Jesus of Nazareth, his disciples, and Saint Paul belonged.


In the first century of the common era, Saint Paul is credited with forming most of the Christine communities outside of Judea, his writings, being the earliest in the Christian cannon, formed the core of what became Christian doctrine. From the perspective of traditional Judaism Saint Paul was synthesizing a new religious tradition, not from their own tradition, but from a corrupt and syncretic system of beliefs popular throughout the Ancient Near East and broader Greco-Roman world.


[i] David Krieger, The New Universalism, Foundations for a Global Theology, The Faith Meets Faith Series, An Orbis Series in Interreligious Dialogue, General Editor Paul Knitter (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), 20.

[ii] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, v. 1 (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1984), 10.


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