Free Will in Covenantal Moral Theology — Guest Post by John Kelleher

Free Will in Covenantal Moral Theology — Guest Post by John Kelleher

I asked John to help explain to us the idea of free will in covenantal theology. This is, of course, a most difficult subject. But then, grasping free will, if we can, could never be easy. –Briggs

What is free will? The question cannot be answered, whether by nature or philosophy, or even by Catholic moral theology, because the source of Free Will is not a Thing.

The right question is, Who is Free Will? And the answer is, the source of the only free responsibility (thus the only Free Will) there is or will ever be in this Fallen world, is the deeds in our history of the crucified and Risen Lord with His bride.

In this Fallen world, the deeds of mere men recede into time. The ripples you made in the pond, die out.

As the shade of Achilles told Odysseus from beyond the grave [Odyssey, II.489-491]:

[Given my fate]
I would rather [be alive and] serve as slave to another man
a man with no land and livelihood
than be a king over all the rotted corpses

Achilles testifies that time devours rewards and punishments alike; death has buried his life in inconsequence.

Yes, earthly sweetness and pain are certainly most vivid; and men, while they live, may or may not choose differently because of this. Is that Free Will?

While they live, men do or do not take note of the praise and blame, the rewards and punishments, of other men, and may or may not choose differently because of this. Is that Free Will?

But what of the Time-less? Can Achilles find surcease there?

Fr. Donald J. Keefe, SJ’s four-volume work, Covenantal Theology, is the greatest work of systematic theology in 800 years. Its goal is to make the Holy Eucharist, and the other six sacraments of the Catholic Church, more central to Catholic theology, and more crucial and fundamental to human life, than had previously been thought possible.

Toward this end, Covenantal Theology (a) utterly eviscerates the idea that a relief from this great pain of Achilles can be found in its later pagan rationalization, the resort to Time-less Necessity, which Fr. Keefe calls “dehistoricized cosmology” — a time-less God, Idea, Form, Law, Order, algorithm, recipe, etc.

And (b) most importantly, Covenantal Theology establishes beyond the possibility of refutation that the faith and worship of the Catholic Church — that the nature of Jesus Christ Himself — is radically incompatible with any such move to Time-less Necessity. (Vols. III and IV are available here).

For the later Greeks, whatever was not the product of, caused by, Time-less Necessary Order, was dangerous, unintelligible, absurd — it could only be sophistry, relativism, chaos. Thus even the notion of free responsibility solely available ex nihilo, as sheer Gift with no prior possibility, in a Person Who with His Bride, One Flesh in the One Sacrifice, stands within time and transcends it, was not merely completely unavailable to the Greeks, it was literally inconceivable to them.

In retrospect, Catholic theology might well have have found Greek philosophy to be as repugnant, as ridiculous, as the Greeks themselves found the very idea of a crucified and risen Lord. But there it is; the world was Roman, yet the world’s thinking was Greek, and you have to start somewhere.

Traditional Catholic moral theology’s dependence on Greek philosophy thus meant that the free, living, Personal, historical, covenantal, nuptial, sacramentally mediated responsibility of Jesus with His bride was certainly an article of Faith, but was largely intellectually, theologically, unavailable.

Who then is free responsibility, Free Will? Only Our Lord with His bride can be that.

In and through His sacraments (signs that cause what they signify ex opere operato) He alone, One Flesh with His bride in the One Sacrifice, can and does freely act in our history; He alone with His bride is able to act with real consequence, to freely, from no prior possibility, offer His very Self to us: His free responsibility, His Free Will that continually remains not “safely” ‘outside’ of time but steadfastly in history, yet alone continually transcends the ravages, inconsequence, and irresponsibility of time.

Apart from the Risen Lord’s continuing sacramental acts in history with His bride, every hair on each man’s head is not numbered, all of a man’s acts, his very breaths, are not ultimately consequential, no man can have Free Will.

Instead — at best — a man may grasp at the utterly Fallen, utterly inadequate ‘free will’ of the great hero, Achilles. Achilles chose, or he did not choose, and what did it avail? For “one fate comes to all.” [Eccl 9:3]

At our baptisms, we begin to share in Free Will, we are gifted a true Name on the earth, one far more lasting than Achilles, we begin an utterly free and yet quite specific history of gifts, works, and obligations as kin to the Bridegroom with His bride — a kinship history that is not ever direct, solitary, or abstract, but instead is ever mediated, ecclesial, and quite particular about this-and-not-that; a kinship history with them and with all believers which, like the Prodigal son, we may at any time freely squander, disavow, refuse.

No time-less or ‘natural’ or ‘philosophical’ or even ‘theological’ Thing or Form or Idea or construct can ever make us kin to Love, can ever gift us a true personal — a baptismal — Name, can ever make our deeds, our breaths, consequential, can ever save us in this Fallen world, or in any other.

The most important thing we know about Free Will in this life is that it not only comes solely from Him with her but also in a real sense, it is Him with her, a mediative, sacramental, ecclesial sharing, as their kin, in their very life and blood; we become able to participate in a consequential kinship history of gifts, works, obligations, not as them, but with them. Without them, absent their continuing sacramental work in our real history, even the thought of Free Will — of free responsibility, of real consequence — does not exist.

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  1. William Wallace

    The Church is the Bride of Christ.

  2. paul smith

    If seomeone names their theology after a common theological word rather than themselves it proves they are liars reversing the meaning of the term and trying to poison the term. Covenental theology has nothing to do with covenants. Its just so-and-so’ variation of Calvinism. But they call it Covenental Theology for 2 reasons: (1) to lyingly claim everytime the word covenant is mentioned in the Bible it proves their false doctrine, and (2) to make others shy away from using the word covenant for fear of being associated with their false doctrine. This sort of gimmick hurts Christianity bad. Its the worst!

  3. kees

    Mister Briggs,

    Do you also read theological books from different denominations/churches/groups? So you can broaden your horizon and test all things.
    I would recommend the book ‘Basic Theology’ by Charles Ryrie.
    For the times we live in now, I recommend the book ‘Global Reset’ by Jeff Kinley & Mark Hitchcock.

    All the best.


  4. C-Marie

    Whatever the covenantal theology is, we know that God has given each person a free will with which to choose Jesus Christ as one’s own Lord, Saviour, and God, and so to live with our Father, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and all of Heaven eternally, or, to choose with the free will to deny God’s gift of salvation utterly, and so go to hell.

    And, we also know that every hair on our head is counted, because Jesus, Who is the Way, the Truth, and the
    Life, told us so.

    Why spend time on theology that, from the article, denies the Truth?

    God bless, C-Marie

  5. Vermont Crank

    Dear Mr. K. I have been reading yore knucklehead intro to covenantal theology and I do not understand why you claim Aquinas embraced a timeless cosmology

    A dehistoricized (time-less) cosmology (explanation for the
    cosmos) makes the universe inevitable, necessary (whether logically, or, for that matter, arbitrarily), by reference to some time-less truth prior to it.

    Catholic theology must reject that paradigm totally, even before Catholic theology begins. Indeed, Catholic theology must reject it totally, in order to begin.

    For what Fr. Keefe sees is that “dehistoricized cosmology,” the paradigm of the logical consequence, of the necessary implication, is completely pagan, totally un-Catholic. Once the paradigm is accepted, the entire revelation given in the Christ is excluded from before the outset. The Catholic proclamation could not be more radically incompatible with it.

    Among other things, this does mean that the Deus Unus, the name for God among all Thomists, is a pagan god. The Deus Unus is radically incompatible with the sacramental worship of the Church, radically incompatible with everything given us in Christ and handed on by the apostles.

    Pull the other one…

  6. Vermont Crank

    Thus, Nature is Grace

    – and the “un-graced” “pure” Nature of the tradition, the time-less
    place where we stand to understand, is, literally, a pagan god, a no- thing, at once defeated and rejected by the New Covenant itself.

    Sorry. Wrong.

    Owing to original sin – not a timeless cosmology, – nature was cursed

    I may read a few more pages of this but if he thinks a theologian like Garrogou-LaGrange was infected with a timeless pagan philosophy then the Jebbies text is worse than worthless; it is a danger to the Faith

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