Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Heresy of Choice” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone.
The Heresy of Choice
When Joshua gave the Israelites a choice of whom to serve, it was the choice between two false religions: the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. When he implied that they had a choice of which gods to follow, he also implied that they were wrong. The God of Israel can never, in a sense, be a choice. He is a reality. Either one chooses the Truth or one is wrong. Truth is always Truth.
“Choice” is one of the four cardinal virtues of modern liberal society, the others being tolerance, empathy (“feeling one’s pain” without necessarily doing anything about it), and recycling. “Choice” is a euphemism for having license to do what is wrong.
This is also the patristic understanding of the word choice, or hairesis in Greek. The same word is also translated as heresy. A heretic was one who felt that he was free to choose which doctrines to believe. Simply to argue that one has a choice in substantial matters of theology and morality is to presume that there is no universal Truth. And to argue that there is no Truth is to argue that there is no God. Hence, for the Fathers, choice was a synonym for heresy.
A love of Truth and an avoidance of other “choices” have always been characteristics of Christian behavior. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius of Antioch praised them for their practice of this simple concept: “I should tell you that Onesimus himself is full of praise for your orderly, religious behavior, because all of you are living according to truth and because among you no heresy finds a home. Indeed, you do not so much as listen to anyone unless his speech is of Jesus Christ in truth.”
Of course, clearly understanding what is true and what is not is not always easy. As St. Irenaeus noted in Against Heresies, “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.” For this reason, we see alternate choices to Truth disguised in a cloak that appears to be compassion and Death itself adorned in raiment of false mercy.
For the Christian, Truth is whom we worship and in whom we have our hope. To be able to rightly discern what is true, we need to develop ears with which to listen to the Holy Spirit as he works in our hearts. As St. John instructs us, our hearts will condemn us if we stray from the Truth (1 John 3:20). But we must be vigilant and we must be faithful, for John also reminds us that this only applies to those who “keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (v. 22).
Rather than choose false gods, we need to serve the God of Israel. As Joshua pointed out, the alternative to “choice” (or heresy) is to follow him who is Truth. Imagine what the Church would be like if a modern-day Ignatius could write in an epistle to the Americans, “You do not so much as listen to anyone unless his speech is of Jesus Christ in truth.” It would be a different world—one hardly recognizable. That would be my choice.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
“The Heresy of Choice” first appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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