Postmodernism

The first English translation of Hamann’s “London Writings”

To show the relevance of Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) today, he was perhaps the first, in 1784, to add to an unrelated word the prefix “meta”.

In his time, he impacted thinkers ranging from Goethe to Kierkegaard to CFW Walther. Today it has been rediscovered and is credited with anticipating – and critiquing – both modernism and postmodernism. Notre Dame professor John Betz sees Hamann’s thought as the only way out of postmodern nihilism, opening the door to a “post-secular” view.

Hamann was also a devout Christian, whose cutting-edge philosophy was largely a sophisticated application of his denominational Lutheran theology.

Unfortunately, not all of Hamann’s writings – which are notoriously difficult to read, due to his playful, multi-layered style – are available in English. But now Hamann’s most fundamental work, the London Writings – in which he recounts his conversion to Christianity, meditates on the Scriptures and formulates the ideas he would develop throughout his life, doing so in a style clear and engaging – has been translated into sound entirely in English.

And the translator is John W. Kleinig, the Australian theologian known to many of us Lutherans in the United States for authoring books like Grace upon Grace and Wonderfully Made and for his work with the Doxology Ministry. I had the privilege of working on this project with him.

Hamann was part of a circle of young Enlightenment rationalists, including Kant. The father of one in Riga hired 28-year-old Hamann to travel to London to organize business negotiations. But his mission was a failure, Hamann fell into the company of dissolute people, and he was soon destitute. At this low point in his life, he picked up an English Bible and started reading it. The Law and the gospel had their full effect on this bright but troubled young man, and he was transformed into a devout follower of Christ and a rapturous lover of the Scriptures.

The “London Writings” were written during this period amid his spiritual awakening, which also proved to be a catalyst for ideas about the physical world, language, reason and faith that he would develop for the rest of his life. They consist of nine works:

(1) “On the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.” A brief summary, with statements like this: “The inspiration of this book is an act of self-effacement and condescension as great as the creation of the world by the Father and the incarnation of the Son.”

(2) “Biblical Meditations of a Christian”. Hamann’s notes as he read the Bible cover to cover amount to Christocentric Bible commentary that is electric with unexpected insights.

(3) “Reflections on the course of my life”. The story of his life and his dramatic conversion.

(4) “Reflections on Church Hymns.” Hamann would later say that his spiritual life was centered on the Bible, that of Luther Small Catechism, and the hymn of his church. Here he meditates on the words of classic hymns, some of which we still sing today, culminating in his own ecstatic joy in the Ascension of Christ and our union with Him.

(5) “Deuteronomy 30:11-14 with Romans 10:4-10.” Connect two texts that say: “the word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart. Reflections on the link between the Word and Faith.

(6) “Shatters”. Our thoughts, says Hamann, are fragments, which we must collect in baskets, as the Disciples did after feeding the 5,000 people. A collection of brief reflections on a variety of topics, some of which Hamann would continue to expand.

(7) “Meditations on Newton’s Essay on Prophecy.” Not Isaac Newton the scientist, not John Newton the hymn writer, but Thomas Newton the Anglican theologian. Here Hamann writes about the Holy Spirit.

(8) “Additional thoughts on the course of my life”. Hamann picks up his life story after leaving London and returning home. We see how his rationally enlightened friends now reject him and trace the course of his ill-fated courtship with Katherina Berens.

(9) “Prayer”. A far-reaching prayer that Hamann would continue to use in his morning and evening devotions.

This translation was commissioned in 2017 by George Strieter of Ballast Press, a micropublisher who reprinted Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on vocation and Adolf Koeberle quest for holiness, both of which were taken over by Wipf & Stock. Dr. Kleinig had introduced Hamann to me, through Betz’s book, after which I introduced Hamann to George. Together we persuaded Dr. Kleinig, who is fluent in German, to undertake the enormous project of translating the Writings from London. He also provided detailed introductions to each section, footnotes, and references to Hamann’s biblical allusions.

I edited the translation. This means that in the beginning I worked with Dr. Kleinig as a reader, reviewing his interpretations, discussing with him how to phrase certain passages, and making occasional suggestions. Once the manuscript was finally complete, a process that took two years, my editorial duties shifted to the editing side, putting the book into type, requiring me to learn InDesign editing software – which, believe me – me, was not easy – then to prepare the exhaustive thematic index and scriptural index. This was my big project during the pandemic lockdowns! Then George and I had to see the project through the printing process, which turned out to be a difficult and time-consuming task in itself.

Now, four years later, London Writings: The Spiritual & Theological Journal of Johann Georg Hamann, is finally complete and available to everyone!

You can buy it from the website, which includes other information you might want to check out, or through Amazon. I urge you to buy it, get every library you’re connected with to buy it, and if not spread the word.

This book can be a game-changer for contemporary theology, putting it back on a Christ-centered biblical path, and for those trying to find a way out of the dead ends of postmodernism. But reading this book is also deeply devotional. This rekindled for me the joy of reading and studying the Word of God.

I will have more articles over the next few days that will focus on some of the content from London Writings to show you what I mean.