by J. I. Packer
“I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals; she decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot,” declares the LORD. HOSEA 2:13
Though there is only one God and only one true faith, namely that taught in the Bible, our apostate world (Rom. 1:18-25) has always been full of religions, and the age-old urging toward syncretism, whereby aspects of one religion are assimilated into another thus changing both, is still with us. Indeed, it has been startlingly revived in our time through the renewed academic quest for a transcendent unity of religions and the flowering of the popular amalgam of Eastern and Western ideas that calls itself the New Age.
The pressure here is not new. Having occupied Canaan, Israel was constantly tempted to absorb Canaanite worship of fertility gods and goddesses into the worship of Yahweh, and to make images of Yahweh himself—both of which moves the law forbade (Exod. 20:3-6). The spiritual issue was whether the Israelites would remember that Yahweh, their covenant God, was all-sufficient for them, and moreover claimed their exclusive allegiance, so that worshiping other gods was spiritual adultery (Jer. 3; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2). This was a test the nation largely failed.
Syncretism was similarly widespread and approved in the first-century Roman empire, where polytheism was rife and all sorts of cults flourished. Christian teachers fought hard to keep the faith from being assimilated to Gnosticism (a kind of theosophy that had no use for incarnation and atonement, since it saw man’s problem as one of ignorance, not sin), and later to Neoplatonism and Manichaeism, both of which, like Gnosticism, saw salvation as mainly a matter of getting detached from the physical world. These conflicts were relatively successful, and the classic creedal formulations of the Trinity and the Incarnation are part of their permanent legacy.
Scripture is stern about the evil of practicing idolatry. Idols are mocked as delusive nonentities (Ps. 115:4-7; Isa. 44:9-20), but they enslave their worshippers in blind superstition (Isa. 44:20) which is infidelity towards God (Jer. 2), and Paul adds that demons operate through idols, making them a positive spiritual menace, contact with which cannot but corrupt (1 Cor. 8:4-6; 10:19-21). In our post-Christian Western culture, which is prepared to fill the spiritual vacuum that people feel by looking kindly on syncretism, witchcraft, and experiments with the occult, the biblical warnings against idolatry need to be taken to heart (cf. 1 Cor. 10:14; 1 John 5:19-21).