ERNESTI, JOHANN AUGUST:
As Professor and Teacher. Professor of theology at Leipsic; b. at Tennstdt (15 m. n.n.w. of Erfurt), Thuringia, Aug. 4, 1707; d. at Leipsic Sept. 11, 1781. His father was preacher and superintendent in Electoral Saxony. In 1727 he began the study of mathematics, philosophy, and theology at Wittenberg. After two years he became tutor at Leipsic, in the house of Stieglitz, councilor of war and mayor, whose influence upon his future career became decisive. In 1731 he was made vice-principal and in 1734 principal of the school of St. Thomas, at the same time lecturing with great success on the Latin classics at the university.
In 1742 he was appointed professor extraordinary of humane literature and in 1756 received the important chair of professor of eloquence. His orations, distinguished by their versatile Latin, won him the title of "Cicero of the Germans." In 1759 he was transferred to the theological faculty. He was an excellent teacher and became a leading personality in the university and town. His nature was receptive; he perceived the defects in methods of instruction, but he lacked thoroughness, while his interest in the subject-matter and the beauties of form caused him to underrate the value of penetrating criticism.
As Theologian. Ernesti's importance as a theologian is intelligible from his personal development and the conditions of his time. After the change of confession on the part of the sovereign and the court, the Lutheran church of Saxony had organized itself in a more independent way, and its churchly life had a secure basis in the confessions of the Reformation. But, owing to Pietism and the criticism of rationalism, the scholastic method in theology had to give way to the historical. Ernesti was governed by the new spirit. As a well-trained philologist he perceived the defects of a dogmatic exegesis and the insufficiencies of a merely empirical method of Biblical criticism. On the other hand, he was deeply penetrated by a love of the Church whose confessional foundations he regarded as unshakable, at least in the attenuated dogmatics of his time. Thus he maintained on the one side that the Bible must be explained like any other book, but on the other hand, as a dogmatician, he clung to tradition. He was not conscious of trying to harmonize two irreconcilable principles in his scientific and churchly thinking; and just because as a theologian of the Church he was able to satisfy the demands of philological criticism by his clear formulas, without infringing upon churchly authority, his work denotes a turning-point in the development of theological science. By his happy inconsistency he secured an indisputable place for historical criticism in theology.
He laid down his principles in his Institutio inter retis Novi Testamenti (Leipsic, 1761;. Eng. transl., Edinburgh, 1834). In opposition to the mystical and allegorical interpretation of Cocceius and to unhistorical rationalism he showed that Scripture possesses only one sense. The work of the interpreter is finished with the establishment of the grammatical or literal sense, i.e., with historical explanation, the means of which are furnished by the science of language. He controverts his own principles, however, by making the positive results of Scriptural interpretation dependent upon the immediate inspiration of the Bible, and the same contradictions appear in his dogmatic works.
In general Ernesti strove to be a Biblical theologian who bases his faith upon the grammatical interpretation of Scripture. He rendered great services by showing that Biblical philological interpretation as such may claim an independent position in theology. By his deep studies of the Bible he avoided rationalism, Pietism, and dead orthodoxy. But he shrank from any thoroughgoing innovation which might in any way interfere with the traditions of churchly life. To increase his influence on the theology of his time he founded the Theologische Bibliothek, which appeared in two series (1760-69 and 1773-79), writing himself most of the contributions. His editions of Cicero, Homer, Xenophon, Tacitus, and other classical authors were famous, and his Opuscula oratoria (Leipsic, 1762), Opuscula philologico-critica (1764), and Initia doctrines solidioris (1736) were much read. His sermons have an academic stamp; their language is cumbrous, and he thinks in Latin, though he writes in German.