Karl Barth wrote the following to his friend Eduard Thurneysen in 1922:

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, Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence 1914-1925, trans. James D. Smart (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1964), 101.

Helpful perspective on the translation from the comments section below:

Markus Prieur: I am a native German speaker living in Ireland. In the original German quote (see below together with my alternative translation) “demonic” is a nominalized adjective in the neuter gender [which is probably the reason why "power" was added in the translated quote above]

“Calvin ist ein Wasserfall, ein Urwald, ein Dämonisches, irgendetwas direkt vom Himalaya herunter, absolut chinesisch, wunderbar mythologisch; es fehlen mir gänzlich die Organe, die Saugnäpfe, dieses Phänomen auch nur in mich aufzunehmen, geschweige denn richtig darzustellen.”

“Calvin is a waterfall, a jungle, a demonic, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, wonderfully mythological; I am lacking completely the organs, the suction cups to merely absorb this phenomenon, let alone to present it correctly.”

David Powlison:

I don’t doubt that Barth meant ‘daemon’ (OED on the original Greek word: “a god, genius, tutelary spirit; a supernatural being of a nature intermediate to gods and men”). He is saying that Calvin seems to be a vast, uncanny force, beyond mere nature, a seeming demigod—not a ‘demon’ (in the sense of “an evil being”). He is admiring Calvin as inexplicably rich and large beyond our comprehension.

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21 thoughts on “Karl Barth on John Calvin”

  1. Patrick Schreiner says:

    I love this quote! Thanks for reminding me of it.

  2. I found the following volume absolutely a terrific read offering some insights into Barth himself as he lectured on John Calvin: http://www.amazon.com/Theology-John-Calvin-Karl-Barth/dp/0802806961

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      Rick: You must have a large book budget :)

      1. Bruce: I only wish it was bigger! Its all about priorities in life. HAHA! ;-)

        1. Hey Rick, are you the same Rick Wadholm I went to Prov with?

        2. I sure hope so Steve. :-)

  3. @Rick Wadholm Jr. – Thanks for the heads up on that volume. I am looking forward to reading it now myself!

    @Justin Taylor – Thanks for this quote that is so typical of Barth, and so humble in his respect for Calvin.

  4. ‘a demonic power’??? Really, Karl?

    I get what he means but it is a very funny use of words. Don’t let critics of Calvin take that one out of context.

  5. It might be interesting for someone conversant in German to consider the original letter (assuming that it was written in German) to see if there are any other possibilities for translating the adjective that appears here as “demonic”, or the single word as the case may be that is rendered “demonic power”. I do not doubt that the intent was to convey that which is frightening, otherworldly, foreign, and inexplicable. I think Barth got that point across, but perhaps not like we might. But, then, we are not Karl Barth! An article of interest on Barth and Calvin is:
    Peter D. Anders, “The Many Faces of Calvin, The Journey to Geneva: Calvin and Karl Barth”, Modern Reformation, Vol. 18, No. 7 (2009),pp. 14-15; on Modern Reformation at http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=1053&var3=main [accessed 15 MAR 2013].

  6. Markus Prieur says:

    I am a native German speaker living in Ireland. In the original German quote (see below together with my alternative translation) “demonic” is a nominalized adjective in the neuter gender [which is probably the reason why "power" was added in the translated quote above]

    “Calvin ist ein Wasserfall, ein Urwald, ein Dämonisches, irgendetwas direkt vom Himalaya herunter, absolut chinesisch, wunderbar mythologisch; es fehlen mir gänzlich die Organe, die Saugnäpfe, dieses Phänomen auch nur in mich aufzunehmen, geschweige denn richtig darzustellen.”

    “Calvin is a waterfall, a jungle, a demonic, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, wonderfully mythological; I am lacking completely the organs, the suction cups to merely absorb this phenomenon, let alone to present it correctly.”

  7. Wow! When you wish for something on Justin Taylor’s blog look out! Less than 2 hours later here we are with a wonderful explanation, the German original, and a literal alternate translation! Markus Prieur, as the saying goes where I live, you are “the man”! The man of the hour as it turns out. If I make it to Ireland again, which I hope to do someday, I would want to shake your hand!

  8. David Powlison says:

    (A supplement to Markus Prieur’s post.) I don’t doubt that Barth meant ‘daemon’ (OED on the original Greek word: “a god, genius, tutelary spirit; a supernatural being of a nature intermediate to gods and men”). He is saying that Calvin seems to be a vast, uncanny force, beyond mere nature, a seeming demigod—not a ‘demon’ (in the sense of “an evil being”). He is admiring Calvin as inexplicably rich and large beyond our comprehension.

    1. I never had any doubt that this was what was meant by Barth. It was just funny how it renders in English.

      Once again, not a good quote for Calvin critics to take out of context!!! :)

  9. Jacob Park says:

    “Calvin is a waterfall, a jungle, a demonic anything directly from the Himalayas down, totally Chinese, wonderful mythological; There the bodies, the suction cups, this I miss completely” Babelfish translation :P

  10. Joseph Chiu says:

    Now that we have a good deal of “demonic” discussion here, how about “absolutely Chinese”? Are we still comfortable today to associate Chinese with strange, mythological?

    1. Petr M., Prague says:

      I take that for “out of this world”, not “strange, mythological”. But even if it was the latter, given the year the phrase was used, it sounds ok to me. We also cannot forget the fact that this was used in private letter. Brother Barth might have chosen his words more carefully if he knew they would become a subject of exegesis 90 years later. I think, what he meant, was this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTX51OzGndw (you will know, who is who in this analogy).

    2. Joseph Chiu: “absolutely Chinese” to Barth may bear the connotation of culturally foreign, inscrutable, or “from a very distant place”. If this were paraphrased in our parlance it might be appropriately rendered as “Greek to me”. Of course, Barth knew Greek, so perhaps, considering the source, “Chinese to me” will have to do! :-)

      1. Joseph Chiu says:

        Nicely put, John. Shall I say what you said is Chinese to me? (since I do know Chinese)

        1. Joseph Chiu: Only if that means it is clear or understandable to you! :-) That is very funny! Perhaps you would have to paraphrase it from your perspective as “absolutely Swahili” or “Swahili to me”, assuming to that you are not also proficient in that language as well! :-)

  11. C.M. Granger says:

    Odd that Barth should offer such high praise for someone he was so far from theologically

  12. Dean Davis says:

    “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself judged by no one.” — 1 Corinthians 2:14-15

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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