Click for: CSSHS Archive Main Page
Vol. VII • 1984

Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788),
Preacher of Christ in the Wilderness of the Enlightenment
Ellen Myers

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), Germany's most famous poet, first learned of Johann Georg Hamann at a meeting in Strasbourg with Hamann's close friend and pupil Johann Gottfried Herder, a famous German writer in his own right during the rise of the rationalistic, deistic Enlightenment. Herder disagreed fundamentally and in a number of specific details with his mentor Hamann, yet believed Hamann's thoughts so important that he ruthlessly tore up Goethe's previous manuscripts and referred him to Hamann's work on the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, folk music, the origin of poetry and of language.

Hamann was widely known and greatly esteemed by leading thinkers of his time, however little they might understand or agree with his thoroughly biblical view of man and of all things and their origin in God's creation as told in the Bible. During the nineteenth century he was occasionally studied and recognized as the father of German classicism and also of Romanticism. Soren Kierkegaard spoke of him as his "Emperor"2 and when Kierkegaard was rediscovered in Europe after World War I, some interest in Hamann also awoke, although not really in earnest until after World War II. It should be stated from the outset that despite Kierkegaard's praise and certain misinterpretations of Ha mann due (0 (he difficulty of Hamann's style and form Hamann cannot be classified with modern existentialist writers, nor with any school of thought fundamentally opposed to biblical Christianity.

Josef Nadler, perhaps the best-informed Hamann scholar of our generation who spent twenty-five years lovingly putting together the indispensable historic-critical edition of Hamann's works (and also wrote a Hamann biography which regrettably does not do Ha mann justice as a Christian according to other Hamann students, and also when compared to Hamann's own writings and letters), was apparently mystified by Hamann's impact as a Christian sent forth by the providence of God Himself, He writes that Hamann

Hamann was a contemporary of David Hume, the Scottish sceptic whose writings he read avidly and believed to be useful in bringing men to acknowledge their intellectual powerlessness, indeed bankruptcy without recourse to God. He was the first to write a critique of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, a work whose fundamental hostility to biblical thought he instantly recognized. Actually Hamann lived near Kant in the East Prussian city of Koenigsberg, and they knew each other for many years. After Hamann's heart conversion to Christ in 1758 his friend Berens enlisted Kant to reconvert Hamann back to the Enlightenment, but without the least success. Hamann wrote Kant about this attempt, "I must almost laugh over the choice of a philosopher for the purpose of bringing about in me a change of mind."4

Hamann realized from the very beginning of his walk with Christ that philosophers who do not take Christ as their starting point are not "neutral" but rather dedicated to presuppositions of their own. This is why, for instance, they deny the creation account of the Bible, and seek to substitute for it a "story" of their own which would "explain creation as a natural event."5 Moreover, these philosophers' arrogance demands that a work purporting to be inspired by God be expressed in philosophical notions they themselves recognize and approve of. so that they might "know things which are too high for us. . `it would be. .a ridiculous demand to ask that Moses should explain about nature according to Aristotelian, Cartesian or Newtonian concepts." On the other hand, to assert "that Moses wrote only for the common rabble is either totally meaningless or a ridiculous way to judge."8 If we would be truly wise and understanding, we must humbly accept God's revelation as He sets it forth:

W.M. Alexander, examining Hamann's defense of the faith against the arrogant rationalism of the Enlightenment of his day points out that Hamann's notion of biblical creation as condescension of God

Furthermore, Alexander raises the excellent and important question whether traditional ways of explaining God's creation ex nihilo properly symbolize God's transcendence over creation. Such ways usually begin with the created world rather than God, whereas Hamann's concept of God's condescension in His act of creation ex nihilo provides a symbol which is God-oriented and makes God prior. Alexander perceptively writes:

Alexander illustrates this point by a telling reference to the art of the Baroque period in which Hamann lived. In this art, the world is more real than God.. When God in His 'transcendence' is represented, ii is `transcendence' las in Sebastiano Conca's `David Dancing Before the Ark') over an otherwise `solid' earth. There is no question here as to what reality is utterly prior it is man's world and the human reason which has shaped it and no amount of `height' in the painting can improve God's `status.' Divine infinity has disappeared and only a domesticated variety remains."10 This is precisely what Hamann protested against and his protest is a thousandfold more valid today when the logical consequence of deist. rationalist Enlightenment thought is the order of the day: God, modern philosophy, art, science and even theology assert, is not needed at all in the picture.

For Hamann, on the contrary, God's creation "represents God's incredible humility. We do not need to explain how God is able to create anything, but rather how He is humble enough to allow anything to exist… Hamann denies the lingering assumptions of an ontology appropriate to a teleological - cosmological type of theology which pictures the world as a glorifying accomplishment, from which we may move by analogy to a knowledge of its Creator."11

Hamann saw this condescension of God also in the Incarnation of Christ, and in the Holy Spirit's use of men to write the Holy Scriptures. He was deeply impressed with God's gracious condescension to himself, a proud and hateful sinner, at the time of his conversion, as is plainly evident from his own account of his conversion and throughout his writings. The following passage from I Corinthians 1:23, 2? was written on his gravestone: "To the Jews an offense to the Greeks foolishneSs, but God elected the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God elected the weak things of the world to confound the strong."'2 It is not the world which can do without God it is God Who can do without the world and proud man. In the words of I Corinthians 1:25 with which Hamann introduced his reflections on the Bible immediately after, or during, his initial conversion to Christ:

Hamann recognized that biblical creation is the ground for epistemological unity. This unity also includes the connection of the creation of man in the image and likeness of the Creator with the redemption of man which means restoration of fallen man to the image and likeness of the Creator which was lost or marred through the Fall. "The seventeenth chapter of John," he wrote, "is a commentary about the creation of man because this creation must be held together with the redemption of man if one wishes to evaluate and to admire both in their true light, in their coherence."4

Hamann was brought up in a "pietist" home, but after his conversion he deliberately and consistently lived a life dedicated to a most un-pietist and continuous battle against every human thought of his time which would exalt itself against God. He recognized two centuries ago that the world was becoming "post-Christian" in the modern sense of our own day. This is why he strongly emphasized epistemology the persistent question to rationalist unbelievers how they "know" what they assert they "know." His most trenchant attack against Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason raised the fundamental question whether there is, or can be, such as thing as "pure" reason able to make autonomous a priori judgments, because reasoning depends on language which is by no means free from contingent experience and subjective presuppositions. We can only regret that his critique of Kant's work was not published until much later (though he shared the thoughts it contained in private letters, and also in bits and pieces elsewhere in his writings).

Hamann was extremely widely read. He was a fine linguist, being fluent in German, French, English. and able to read and translate Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Latin. Arabic and Dutch. His writings bristle with Greek, Latin and some Hebrew quotations, and with countless references to writers of his own day. When we remember that in those days all manuscript writing had to be done laboriously with goosequills dipped in homemade ink, we can only admire the sheer quantity of his literary output and his many letters to his many friends, most of whom he kept through his entire life. He earned a precarious living as a minor employee of the Prussian customs bureaucracy in his native city of Koenigsberg, supporting his common-law-wife and their four children, and for some years his younger brother who was mentally ill and sank into total silence for the last few years of his life (perhaps in a form of progressive retardation). Yet Ha mann's personal writings generally testify to a sweet, humble and kind disposition, love and care for his family and above all unwavering gratitude and fervent devotion to his Lord and God Whom he had come to know as his Saviour from inner unrest and misery in 1758. His "polemical writings" 50 to call them are largely very difficult to follow, but the fundamental line of attack against any and all attempts of man to assert autonomy over against God runs through them all.

Hamann often sounds like an observer of our own day and a prophet long before the events and trends we witness here and now. He predicted, for instance, that a separation of church and state (or rather, God and state)) can only bring about an amoral, lawless state, and that autonomy apart from God must inevitably lead to nihilism (he almost uses this very word). He had no patience or any kind of empathy with the theologians of his time who, much like mainline denomination theologians of today, went along with dead orthodoxy or else anti-Christian Enlightenment thought while yet maintaining a pretense of church membership and professed Christianity or even support of the Scriptures. Yet he himself remained a faithful communicant of the Lutheran church all his life.

Hamann opposed "naturalistic" explanations of such things as the origin of human language. On this particular subject he wrote an excellent "creationist" paper in response to a prize-winning essay by his friend Herder who had proffered a theory of emotive grunts and outcries leading gradually to fullfledged human speech, reminiscent of modern psychological theories today. He staunchly maintained God's ever-present action in all human history over against the "from primitive to civilized man by gradual accretions and accidents" historiographies then current among the educated elite. Probaby all areas of human thought are covered somewhere among his writings except mathematics and the natural sciences. About some scientific theories, by the way, he preserved a healthy skepticism which would have doubtless kept him from being enthralled by the arrogant, elitist "Scientism" so rampant in our own generalion.'5 Of great profit and interest in this connection is his emphaSis on genuine ignorance, and humble confession thereof, as the first step in godly repentance leading to salvation in Christ.

It appears that almost all Hamann's own writings are available at this time only in the original and somewhat old-fashioned German. Excerpts, of course, appear in English translation in secondary sources available to American and other English-speaking readers. While biblical creation is fundamental and crucial in Hamann's thought, he covers a wealth of other subjects pertinent and profitable from the Christian biblical perspective in the social sciences and humanities. This writer was greatly blessed by her preliminary study of Hamann's valiant and profound contributions to Christian apologetics for his own time and even more strongly for our own. He anticipated the work of such modern "pre-suppositionalists" as Cornelius Van Til and Rousas John Rushdoony and, yes, the creationist movement since the 1960's. In particular he seems to be close in Spirit to the thrust of creationists in Australia such as Ken Ham and John Mackay16 who emphasize the unity between creation and redemption in the eternal Providence of God and the importance of allowing no autonomy whatever to man and man's reason but rather to "cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10: 5)" in our own neo-pagan age.

1 Ma gus im Norden: Aus den Scnrifien und Brie fen von Johann Georg Hamann (The Magus of the North: From the Writings and Letters of Johann Georg Hamann), (Frankfurt, Germany: Insel-Verlag, 1950), p. 67.
2 W.M. Alexander, Johann Georg Hamann.' Philosophy and Faith (The Hague: Martin us Nijhoff, 1966), p.1
3 Johann Georg Hamann, Saerntliche Werke (Collected Works), Historisch-kritische Ausgabe von Josef Nadler (Historical-critical edition by Josef Nadler) (Vienna, Austria: Verlag Herder, 1949-1957), 1, 320.
4 Alexander, op. cit., p. 76.
5 Hamann, Op. Cit., 1, 11.
6 ibid, I, 12.
7 Ibid, I, 12-13.
8 Alexander, op. Cit., p.2?.
9 Idem.
10 Ibid, p. 28.
11 Ibid, pp. 28, 29.
12 ibid. p. 13.
13 Hamann, Op. Cit.. 1.6.
14 Ibid, I, 16.
15 cf. Anthony Standen's still excellent Science Is A Sacred Cow (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1950).
16 Casebook No.2 by Ken Ham. Published 1983 by Creation Science Foundation, P.O Box 302, Sunnybank, Qld., Australia, or order in the USA form Ex Nihilo, P.O. Box 6064. Evanston, IL 60204, $1.00 per copy.

"Johann Georg Hamann, Preacher of Christ"
CSSHS • Creation Social Science & Humanities Society • Quarterly Journal

Main Page:  CSSHS Archives