The Lutheran roots of Radical Orthodoxy

Not long ago we posted about the theological and philosophical movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, asking whether Lutherans could have a seat at that table.  Well, in another context, my friend George Strieter put me on to Johann Georg Hamann, a devout Lutheran who was friends with Kant and Hegel but who critiqued their philosophies with some extremely innovative philosophy of his own.   It turns out, Hamann’s thought is said to be a major influence on ” Oswald Bayer, John Milbank and David Bentley Hart.”  The latter two are the most prominent figures in Radical Orthodoxy.  And that Oswald Bayer , perhaps the favorite contemporary German theologian at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, is mentioned here puts him in the company of the radically orthodox.

From Wikipedia:

Johann Georg Hamann (27 August 1730 – 21 June 1788) was a noted German philosopher, a main proponent of the Sturm und Drang movement, and associated by historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin with the Counter-Enlightenment. Both Goethe and Kierkegaard, along with many other notable intellectuals, considered him to be the finest mind of his time.

He was destined for the pulpit, but became a clerk in a mercantile house, and afterward held many small public offices, devoting his leisure to intense study. He wrote under the nom de plume of “the Magus of the North” (German: Magus im Norden). He was also a polyglot who most notably translated David Hume into German; which is considered by most scholars as the translation that Hamann’s friend, Immanuel Kant, had read and that proved so pivotal in the awakening of Kant’s self-described “dogmatic slumber”. Both Hamann and Kant held each other in mutual respect; indeed, Kant once invited Hamann to co-write a physics textbook for children, which Hamann declined.

His distrust of autonomous, disembodied reason and the Enlightenment (“I look upon logical proofs the way a well-bred girl looks upon a love letter” was one of his many witticisms) led him to conclude that faith in God was the only solution to the vexing problems of philosophy. His most notable contributions to philosophy were his thoughts on language, which have often been considered as a forerunner to the linguistic-turn in postmodern philosophy and also Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He famously said that “reason is language”.

Hamann was a Pietist Lutheran, and a friend (while being an intellectual opponent) of the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was greatly influenced by David Hume. This is most evident in Hamann’s conviction that faith and belief, rather than knowledge, determine human actions. Also, Hamann asserted that the efficacy of a concept arises from the habits it reflects rather than any inherent quality it possesses. Hamann famously used the image of Socrates, who often proclaimed to know nothing, in his Socratic Memorabilia, an essay in which Hamann critiques the Enlightenment’s dependence on reason.

Hamann was one of the precipitating forces for the counter-enlightenment. He was, moreover, a mentor to Herder and an admired influence on Goethe, Jacobi, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Lessing and Mendelssohn. Hans Urs von Balthasar devoted a chapter to Hamann in his volume, Studies in Theological Styles: Lay Styles (Volume III in the English language translation of The Glory of the Lord series). Most recently Hamann’s influence can be found in the work of the theologians Oswald Bayer, John Milbank and David Bentley Hart.

For a more in depth account of Hamann’s theology, go to Rev. Michael C. Larson’s blog  here and here.

I am trying to get my mind around someone who was a catalyst for the cutting edge literature of German Romanticism  AND linguistic analytic philosophy AND devout Lutheranism AND Radical Orthodoxy.  I mean, how can a person be a mashup of the highly rationalistic David Hume, the wild-hearted poet Goethe, the existentialist Kierkegaard, and orthodox Lutheran theologians of his time and ours, all at the same time?  I have the sense that grasping that synthesis may be a way forward for contemporary thought.

From what I can piece together so far, Hamann showed, with great sophistication, the limits of reason and the necessity of revelation–that is, the Word of God, which he then applied to the formative nature of language in general.  I intend to read more.  In the meantime, feel free to help me out, those of you who know about Hamann.

(I’m also intending to study Oswald Bayer.  Watch for a post about him later.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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