The present worldwide emergence of syncretism is nothing other than the violent resurgence of that basic menace which has confronted the biblical faith in successive ways ever since God revealed himself for the first time to the people of Israel. The word “syncretism” does not occur in the Bible. But the fact of syncretism has been present throughout the history of Israel and Christianity.

I would define syncretism as the unconscious tendency or the conscious attempt to undermine the uniqueness of a religion by equating its elements with those of other belief systems. In this understanding, syncretism is not just the simultaneous practice of two unrelated religions, which might be motivated either by external pressure or by inner anxiety. Neither should it be confused with the adoption of formal elements of other religions into Christianity for missionary reasons. Syncretism equates heterogeneous religious elements and thereby changes their original meaning without admitting such a change.

The whole history of Israel as described in the Old Testament is a gigantic fight for the validity of the First Commandment. The attacks against the Jehovah (YHWH) faith came from two directions, from inside and from outside.

The first threatening of Israel’s belief started as soon as the people had settled in the country of Canaan. The Israelites had received their revelation during their nomadic existence in the desert. Now they were met by the Phoenician-Canaanite fertility cult, which was persuasively fitted to the needs of an agricultural society. In the Old Testament we find a threefold answer to this challenge: segregaticr, eradication, and adaptation.

None of these methods was entirely successful. The danger to the faith of Israel persisted in two ways. On the one hand the cult of Baal and Asherah on the hilltops and in the groves continued secretly. Together with this went the so-called secondary religion, the practice of magics and spiritism which lends itself readily to combination with any of the higher religions. On the other hand was an even greater menace: the process of adaptation went out of control. Instead of reinterpreting the elements of Baalism in the light of the Jehovah revelation, Israel’s religion became Canaanized. Jehovah came to have features of Baal! As the divinized forces of nature were perceived in a multitude of different manifestations, so too the images of Baal and Asherah shimmered in an immense number of different local appearances. The same process of localization now occurred to the concept of Jehovah.

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The threat of religious disintegration became even more acute in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Then the country was drawn into the imperialistic struggle of the ancient Oriental powers of Assyria and Babylon. Israel faced foreign religiosity not only in the archaic forms of the indigenous nature cult but in the more refined ways of worship of the official state cults. Thus Jehovah was downgraded to become one deity amongst others in the Oriental pantheon.

In those dark hours in the history of Israel, the entire people seemed to have committed apostasy or to be given to syncretism. How then did the miracle happen that as the outcome of the struggle the Jehovah religion finally emerged in a thoroughly purified form? How could the Jews become the first really monotheistic people in the whole history of religion?

The answer is very illuminating for the task of the Church today: several forces joined in the battle for the maintenance, survival, and restoration of the genuine faith. There were those exemplary kings (like David, Hezekiah, and Josiah), who took their vocation as messianic representatives of their covenant people very seriously. They established or reformed the worship of Jehovah as the only tolerated state religion. The deuteronomistic reform of Josiah centralized the sacrificial cult exclusively in the temple of Jerusalem. After the exile Nehemiah and Ezra consolidated the Jewish community socially and religiously.

But all this would have had little effect without a corresponding inner revival. The religious conscience of Israel as the elected people with its specific corresponding promises and obligations had to be stirred up. This function was exercised by a series of outstanding men whose ministry was unique in the phenomenology of religion: the prophets.

Three main features are common to the prophets’ mission and message. First, they were deeply moved by the obliging character of Israel’s ancient holy traditions. They contrasted the pure beginning of the people’s history, its election and experience of God’s miraculous acts of salvation, with the present accommodation to the religion and morals of the heathen. Passionately they call for a decision: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If Jehovah is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him!” (1 Kings 18:21).

The second characteristic of the prophetic message is that it applies the will of God as clearly known from the Torah to the actual situation. Isaiah and Jeremiah adamantly insist that faithfulness must prevail over the temptation to political opportunism: “If you will not believe, surely you will not be established” (Is. 7:9). This is the opposite of syncretism!

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The third main feature of the prophetic message is the eschatological vision. The prophets interpreted the political catastrophe as the divine punishment for Israel’s syncretistic apostasy. This meant that history had by no means gone out of Jehovah’s control. He has both the power and the intention to change its course again in favor of his people. In the final days God will remember his promises to Israel and renew his covenant with her. Zion will become the highest mountain on earth, and God will be really present in his Holy City to establish messianic shalom over his people and from there over all nations. Thus in the prophetic message, past, present, and future was bound together by the continuity of the specific history of election, revelation, and salvation of Jahweh with his chosen people. This guarded the unmistakable identity of Israel’s faith against any syncretistic disintegration.

Will the Church regain the spiritual strength to reassert the outlook of the Old Testament prophets on God’s specific plan of salvation over against the utopian visions of Marxist and humanist ideologists who at present seem to control the course of the ecumenical movement? This is a question of “to be or not to be” for Christianity throughout the world today!

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