Balthasar’s theology is presented in his Theodramatik as the interplay of God’s infinite freedom and man’s created, finite freedom in a drama that takes place in God’s created stage of the Heavens and the Earth.
Within this structure, Balthasar has brilliantly presented the drama of salvation, using the concept of the play as that which is most faithful to revelation while it manages to best approximate the needed balance between a Platonic-influenced, static theology that does not do justice to man’s freedom and redemptive history, and a theology of change that does not do justice to God’s sovereign orchestration of all creation.
According to Balthasar, finite freedom can only fulfill itself within infinite freedom and in no other way. This is an idea that shines with the colors of Augustine’s understanding of freedom and love. The more freedom and cupidity are wrongly exercised towards self, exercised in autonomy, and exercised towards things other than God (things which are thus used for selfish purposes), the more man becomes incurved in himself. His freedom becomes a prison, and his passions rule over him and draw him away from the ability to love God.
On the other hand, the grace of God liberates man’s freedom to love Him and to love what is good for his sake, thereby fulfilling man’s freedom as it then embodies both the capacity and the desire to love God and to love the true, the good and the beautiful. Thus, Balthasar argues that finite freedom “can neither go back and take possession of its origins nor can it attain its absolute goal by its own power,”[i] i.e., it exists encompassed by infinite freedom. It can only be exercised there, and it can only be fulfilled there.
It is the Son himself who is the ground and the goal of human finite freedom, because he is the “perfect coincidence of freedom and obedience,” and thus determines the entire course of “the drama to be played and a stage on which to play it.”[ii] In a brilliant analogy, Balthasar uses the parable of the talents as one illustration of this relationship between finite freedom given and directed by God: God gives the servants “an acting area in which they can creatively exercise their freedom and imagination: but what he gives them is his wealth, which they can use wisely or fritter away.”[iii]
According to Balthasar, then – and this is a central concept to his whole theology – “the creation of the finite freedom by infinite freedom is the starting point of all theo-drama.”[iv] Balthasar’s emphasis on the freedom of man as an intrinsic element of the drama, among other things, manages to provide meaning to all decisions of life in a truly existential way. Writing in a style reminiscent of Bultmann’s,[v] Balthasar says,
Only thus can the individual life become a drama, that is, an action of ultimate significance that takes place within a finite framework . . . at each successive “now”, he is able, through a free and responsible decision, to stamp the entirety of his finitude with a meaning that reflects, and is guaranteed by, the presence of the absolute.[vi]
The drama is the context in which individual lives have ultimate significance. Man transcends his finiteness through making decisions that carry eternal weight, particularly in saying Yes to God. As Balthasar says, God himself brings the theo-drama to this point in a way that “nothing godless is imported into God, and, on the other hand man’s freedom is not overridden by a drama within the Godhead that seems to have nothing to do with him.”[vii]
God is responsible for the play, and “yet he is not responsible when man, in freedom, acts inappropriately.”[viii] There are many ways in which man seeks to imprint significance, transcendence and absoluteness to his life while saying no to God; Balthasar categorizes those under two main umbrellas:
- Man seeks to escape his finitude vertically (e.g. in the timeless zone of Nietzsche’s Superman)
- Man seeks to escape his finitude horizontally (e.g. Marxism, the future of the classless society).
This is the “paradox of the human being, his manifest restlessness and orientation to God”[ix] in which he feels the need to “write the absolute upon the relative.”[x] But this can only be reached in God, and in man’s covenant with God. Balthasar’s emphasis on drama and covenant finds a path between a sovereign man who seeks to determine his own destiny in autonomy – and thereby creates false meaning because he cannot escape his finitude however much he tries to convince himself to the contrary – and a sovereign God who, improperly understood, would overwhelm man and achieve his own ends without reference to man’s free will. This sovereign God would rob man of his legitimacy as a free being and render the relationship between God and man illusory.
Balthasar argues that “only after God has uttered his absolute Yes to man can man utter his absolute No to God . . . this wide range in freedom, from a full human Yes and (at least the intention of) a full No, brings the tension of theo-drama to its peak.”[xi]
I think this is very helpful for a balanced understanding of theology and redemptive history. Moreover, it is a very ingenious approach to the issues surrounding providence, human choices, aesthetics, meaning, and the interplay between the finite and the infinite – especially in the context of love. Of course, Balthasar’s TheoDrama encompasses a variety of other topics, and he has also written important works outside of this series, so this is just a glimpse of a particular issue about which he has written.
I find that, whether one always agrees with Balthasar or not (and I sometimes take a very different view than his, particularly on some points of his soteriology), reading his work – especially the TheoDrama – is always a journey. One cannot fail to learn from his vast knowledge, which is solidly grounded in the classics, as well as appreciate the aesthetic aspect of theology – brought in not only in content but in form as well.
[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory Vol. II: Dramatis Personae (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 259.
[ii] Theo-Drama II, 268.
[iii] Ibid., 273.
[iv] Ibid., 271.
[v] The emphasis on present decision as creating meaning for one’s life is woven throughout Bultmann’s works, in which he understands the cross and the decision of faith through existential lenses. See, for example, Bultmann, History and Eschatology (Edinburgh: University Press, 1957), p. 155, where he says, “The meaning of history lies always in the present . . . do not look around yourself into universal history, you must look into your own personal history. Always in your present lies the meaning in history, and you cannot see it as a spectator, but only in you responsible decisions. In every moment slumbers the possibility of being the eschatological moment. You must awaken it.”
[vi] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory Vol. IV: The Action (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 88.
[vii] Theo-Drama II, 194.
[viii] Ibid., 195.
[ix] Theo-Drama IV, 145.
[x] Ibid., 83.
[xi] Theo-Drama II, 124.