Barth’s Hymn to Calvin (the cataract)


Barth was not the only ‘modern’ theologian to have enjoyed a maturing relationship with Calvin’s thought. In the summer of 1922, the young Barth was teaching a course on the theology of Calvin. As he immersed himself in the reformer’s thought, he became beset by the peculiarity and muscle of what he found. On 8 June, 1922, Barth gave voice to this astonishment in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen:

‘Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin’. – Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914–1925 (trans. James D. Smart; Richmond: Westminster John Knox Press, 1964), 101.

In January 2008, eighty-six years later, these words were then put into verse by David Alexander (then of Tainan Theological College and Seminary) to the tune of Philippi: 

Calvin’s a cataract, primeval forest, a demonic pow’r.
Something directly down, from Himalayan heights,
strange to the absolute, mythic in depth.

We lack the means the equipment to fathom this phenomenon,
nor to present it with adequate clarity.
What we receive is but a little stream.

We can give back but the thinnest of extracts of what we have got.
We would well benefit, if we would only sit,
spending our lives with John Calvin alone.

Hymn - Calvin’s A Cataract.jpg

[Top image: Student sketch of Calvin made during a lecture in the Academy (c. 1559-63). HT: Heidelblog]


  1. Hmmm…much as I’d like to sing these words to this tune, I’m struggling to do so with any degree of comfort! The beats of the music and the beats of the words don’t seem to me to quite coincide, especially in verse 2.


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