Checks against Syncretism

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In our well-intentioned efforts to make the Christian message meaningful in human settings, there is always the danger that we take an uncritical affirmative approach to contextualization and use the cultural context as the final authority in determining the limits of contextualization. The result is a syncretism that undermines the truth of the gospel.

Examples of this are Yun Sung-Bumb’s use of the Korean Tang-Gun Myth, Kazoh Kitamori’s use of the Buddhist concepts of pain and enlightenment, S. Wesley Ariarajah’s use of Hindu and Buddhist religious monism, and Rudolf Bultmann’s use of a secularized scientism as foundations for understanding the gospel.

A strong case could also be made that the church in America has overcontextualized the gospel, especially in areas such as consumerism and individualism. Similarly, the incorporation of prayers and songs from other religions into Christian worship services opens the door for a syncretism that in the end denies the uniqueness of the gospel.

How can we guard against a relativism engendered by theological pluralism, or the syncretism that surfaces when the gospel becomes captive to our cultures? The answer lies, in part, in a critical approach to contextualization in which we first study both the Scriptures and our cultural and historical settings, and then let the text transform us and our contexts. What we need is a biblically based way of doing theology in particular cultural and historical contexts. Such an approach would include four checks against overcontextualizing the gospel.

The first check against syncretism is Scripture. Christian beliefs and practices must be biblically based. This may seem obvious, but we must constantly remind ourselves that ...

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