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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