He was born at Tennstadt in Thuringia, where his father was pastor, besides being superintendent of the electoral dioceses of Thuringia, Salz and Sangerhausen. At the age of sixteen he was sent to the celebrated Saxon cloister school of Pforta (Schulpforta). At twenty he entered the University of Wittenberg, and studied afterwards at the University of Leipzig. In 1730 he was made master in the faculty of philosophy. In the following year he accepted the office of conrector in the Thomas school of Leipzig, of which JM Gesner was then rector, an office to which Ernesti succeeded in 1734. He was, in 1742, named professor extraordinarius of ancient literature in the university of Leipzig, and in 1756 professor ordinarius of rhetoric. In the same year he received the degree of doctor of theology, and in 1759 was appointed professor ordinarius in the faculty of theology. Through his learning and his manner of discussion, he co-operated with S. J. Baumgarten of Halle (1706-1757) in disengaging the current dogmatic theology from its many scholastic and mystical excrescences, and thus paved a way for a revolution in theology. He died, after a short illness, in his seventy-sixth year.
Apart from the quality of his own writing, Ernesti is notable for his influence on sacred and profane criticism in Germany. With JS Semler he co-operated in the revolution of Lutheran theology, and in conjunction with Gesner he instituted a new school in ancient literature. He detected grammatical niceties in Latin, in regard to the consecution of tenses which had escaped preceding critics.
As an editor of the Greek classics, Ernesti does not compare with his Dutch contemporaries, Tiberius Hemsterhuis, L. C. Valckenaer, David Ruhnken or his colleague JJ Reiske. The higher criticism was not even attempted by Ernesti. But to him and to Gesner is due the credit of having formed, by discipline and by example, philologists greater than themselves, and of having kindled the national enthusiasm for ancient learning.
It is chiefly in hermeneutics that Ernesti has any claim to eminence as a theologian. But here his merits are distinguished, and, at the period when his Institutio Interpretis Nove Testamenti (Principles of New Testament Interpretation) was published (1761), almost peculiar to himself. In it we find the principles of a general interpretation, formed without the assistance of any particular philosophy, but consisting of observations and rules which, though already enunciated, and applied in the criticism of the profane writers, had never rigorously been employed in biblical exegesis. He was, in fact, the founder of the grammatico-historical school. He admits in the sacred writings as in the classics only one acceptation, and that the grammatical, convertible into and the same with the logical and historical. Consequently he censures the opinion of those who in the illustration of the Scriptures refer everything to the illumination of the Holy Spirit, as well as that of others who, disregarding all knowledge of the languages, would explain words by things. The "analogy of faith," as a rule of interpretation, he greatly limits, and teaches that it can never afford of itself the explanation,of words, but only determine the choice among their possible meanings. At the same time he seems unconscious of any inconsistency between the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible as usually received and his principles of hermeneutics.
Works on classical literature:
Works on sacred literature:
Besides these, he published more than a hundred smaller works, many of which have been collected in the three following publications: Opuscula oratoria (1762); Opuscula philologica et critica (1764); Opuscula theologica (1773).