1902 Encyclopedia > Karl Gottlieb Bretschneider

Karl Gottlieb Bretschneider
German scholar and theologian
(1776-1848)




KARL GOTTLIEB BRETSCHNEIDER, an eminent scholar and theologian, of the more moderate school of German rationalism, was born on the 11th February 1776, at Gersdorf in Saxony. From his autobiography, which was found amongst his papers after his death, and was published by his son in 1851, we obtain a very complete picture, not only of the man himself, but of the times in which he lived, and of the influences by which he was surrounded. His father was pastor of the village of Gersdorf, but was translated to Lichtenstein when Bretschneider was only four years of age. He gives an interesting account of his early childhood and school training, of the impression produced upon him by his father's dignified bearing, and of the agricultural pursuits and piscatorial amusements by which the clerical and paedeutie labours of the latter were diversified. On the death of his father, in 1789, he was sent to Hohenstein to reside with his uncle Tag. It is in keeping with the mental characteristics of the man who afterwards became famous for that cool and deliberate exercise of the reason on theological subjects, which has led many to place him among the extreme school of rationalist divines, to find him at the early age of fourteen, when he was confirmed by the pastor of Hohenstein, criticizing the religious teaching of his instructor, and pointing out that the order in which the various doctrines were taught from the Dresden catechism was not such as could commend itself to his own experience, or the course of moral education which he had undergone. He remarks that he deems the circumstance worthy of mention, "because it was the first time that, having turned, his thoughts to the subject of religion, he could not persuade himself of the truth of what he was taught, and that a similar process may be going on in the minds of many a youth in similar circumstances, without the instructor being at all aware of it."
In 1790 Bretschneider was sent to the lyceum of Chemnitz, where the celebrated Heyne had received his classical education. Here he remained four years. Tho account which he gives of the state of education in this school (which had greatly fallen away from its former reputation), and of the capacity of his instructors, is interesting, and is strikingly illustrative of the growth of that critical faculty which became so prominent a feature

in his character. It was while at Chemnitz that Bret-schneider became acquainted with the Wolfenbuttel Frag-ments. The conrector Lessing, a brother of the great Les-sing, who was the editor of the Fragments, and who was believed for some time to be their real author, was incon-siderate enough to warn his pupils against reading any of his brother's works. The natural result followed. The prohibited books were eagerly sought after, and perused with avidity. Contrary, however, to what might at first have been expected, the persual of the Fragments made no impression on the mind of Bretschneider. The independent judgment of the youth is seen in the criticism which he passed upon the book :—" I read the portion," he says, " which treats of the miracles of the Old Testament. But the reading made no impression upon me, for Christianity did not appear to me to rest at all upon the miracles of the Old Testament."
In 1794 Bretschneider entered the university of Leipsic, having resolved to devote himself to the study of theology. His resolution to adopt this profession was purely the result of circumstances. " His father had expressed a wish that he should do so, and all his mother's brothers were clergy-men." The lectures which he attended were those of Platner on philosophy, of Keil and Beck and Burscher on various branches of theology, and of Meisner and Kuhnoel on Hebrew. His autobiography contains minute and severe criticisms upon the various professors, in which the defects and mistakes of their teaching are pointed out. One or two of these may be quoted as indicative of the mental tendencies of the writer. Speaking of the lectures on philosophy, and after pointing out the defects of Platner's method, he says,—" Even at this early period, I learned from experience the impossibility for me of adopt-ing any doctrine, except on condition of its standing fully and clearly developed before me,-—a peculiarity which has adhered to me during my whole life, and has always pre-served me from mysticism and the theology of feeling." Again, in referring to the lectures of Beck on the exegesis of Scripture, the future lexicographer of the New Testa-ment appears in the remark,—" I well remember how burdensome the word n-veipa and rrvevp.a ayiov became, which he explained now as expressing sensum christianum, and now as fervorem animi, and then, again, as something else. I felt that these explanations were not correct, and consequently could not accept them." With the lectures of Keil, the successor of the celebrated Moras, Bret-schneider appears to have been better satisfied. He adopted his principle of the historical interpretation of Scripture, and entered, as he says, " with the greatest zeal upon the study of the Jewish theology and its usus loquendi. In consequence of this, a multitude of arbitrary explanations were set aside, and neither for Teller's dictionary, nor for other modern interpretations, in which new ideas are attached to the words of Scripture, could I acquire the least relish. The efforts to explain away the devil from the Bible, to reduce the passages respecting Christ's pre-existence and higher nature to a moral sense, to make the miracles of the New Testament by exegetical subtleties mere natural events, were odious to me as denials of divine truth."
After spendingf our years at Leipsic, Bretschneideraccepted the office of tutor to the sons of a Saxon nobleman, a post which he retained for some years. During this period his resolution to make the church his profession seems to have been somewhat shaken. His difficulties, however, were removed by reading the observations on assent to creeds in Reinhard's Christian Ethics, and also " by the thought that many great and estimable theologians varied widely from the church faith, and that in general society, and in the learned world, the enlightened theologians (for the term rationalist was not common then) stood in the highest repute, and were regarded with universal respect. This state of things I supposed would be permanent, and I could not then have believed that only a single generation would pass before the enlightened theologians would be assailed with such violence and bespattered with filth as they now are. Had I been able to foresee this, I should certainly have devoted myself to the study of law."
In 1802 Bretschneider passed with great distinction the examination for candidates theologice, and on that occasion attracted the favourable regard of Beinhard, the celebrated court-preacher at Dresden, who became his warm friend and patron during the remainder of his life. In 1804 Bretschneider established himself as privat-docent at the university of Wittenberg, where he remained about two years, giving lectures on philosophy and theology. It was during this time that he began his career as an author. The first production of his pen was his Dogmatische Entwicklung aller in der Dogmatik vorkommenden Begriffe nach den Symbolischen Schriften der evangelisch-lutherischen und reformirten Kirche und den wichtigsten dogmatischen Lehrbüchern Hirer Theologen, nebst der Literatur vorzüglich der neueren über alle Theile der Dogmatik, which appeared in 1805, and reached a fourth edition in 1841, and which is distinguished for the complete account which it contains of the literature of the subject. This was followed by other works, among which may be named an edition of the book of Ecclesiasticus with a commentary in Latin, which was intended to form part of a larger work upon the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament,—an undertaking that was never carried out. The advance of the French army under Napoleon into Prussia after the battle of Austerlitz determined Bretschneider to leave Wittenberg, which as a fortified town was liable to be exposed to all the horrors of a siege. He accordingly abandoned his university career, and, through the good offices of his friend Beinhard, obtained the pastorate of Schneeberg in Saxony, on the duties of which he entered in March 1807. In 1808 he was promoted to the office of superin-tendent of the church of Annaberg, which, in addition to the properly clerical duties which belonged to the charge, involved the consideration of many matters belonging to the department of ecclesiastical law, which had to be decided in accordance with the canon law of Saxony. Bretschneider, however, devoted himself energetically to his duties. " The Corpus Juris Saxonici," he says, " was almost always on my table, and I soon became perfectly acquainted with its contents." In Annaberg he passed eight years, during which time he twice declined the offer of a professorship of theology, once from Königsberg and once from Berlin. The climate, however, did not agree with him, and in consequence of the demands made upon him by the discharge of his official duties, he was prevented from devoting sufficient time to his theological studies. He, therefore, began to desire a change. With a view to this, he publicly took the degree of doctor of theology in Wittenberg in August 1812. The subject of his thesis was " Capita Theologize Judaicae," as gathered chiefly from the writings of Josephus. It was the last public doctorate of the kind, and cost him 300 thalers (£45), "an expense," he remarks, " which he often regretted, as the title was shortly after made common." It may have been some little consolation to him that the people of Annaberg on his return commemorated his promotion in a number of poems composed for the occasion.
The desired change came at last. In 1816, on the death of Loeffler, general superintendent at Gotha, he was appointed, on the recommendation of Von Ammon, Reinhard's successor at Dresden, to the vacant post, iij which he remained until his death in 1848. This was the

great period of his literary activity. By a careful economy of time, he was able to discharge his official duties, and yet to possess sufficient leisure for theological study. Of the various productions of his pen, which appeared during his residence at Gotha, the following are specially worthy of note. In 1820 was published his treatise on the gospel of St John, entitled Probabilia de Evangelii et Epistolarum Joannis Apostoli indole et origine eruditorum judiciis modeste subjecit K. G. Bretschneider. The sensation which this work produced was immense. In it he collected together with great fulness, and discussed with marked moderation of tone, the various arguments which seem to prove the non-Johannine authorship of the gospel. As might have been expected, it called forth a host of replies, several of which proceeded from some of the ablest scholars and divines of the day. To the astonishment of every one, Bretschneider announced in the preface to the second edition of his Dogmatik in 1822, that he had never believed in the non-authenticity of the gospel, that he had only published his Probabilia to draw attention to the subject, and to call forth a more complete defence of its genuine-ness, an object which he considered had now been fully accomplished. Whatever may have been the effect pro-duced on the mind of Bretschneider himself by the various replies which appeared, they certainly did not remove the doubts of others, for the controversy still appears as far from being definitely settled as it was when the Probabilia appeared more than half a century ago. Bretschneider remarks in his autobiography that the publication of this work had the effect of preventing his appointment as suc-cessor to Tittmann in Dresden, the minister Von Einsiedel violently opposing the proposal of the city council to call Bretschneider to the office, and denouncing him as the " slanderer of John" (Her Johannis Schdnder).
The work by which Bretschneider conferred the greatest service upon the science of exegesis was his Lexicon Manuale Grceco-Latinum in libros Novi Testamenti, which appeared in 1824, and which attained a third edition in 1840. This work is valuable for the use which its author made of the Greek of the Septuagint, of the Old and New Testament Apocrypha, of Josephus, and of the apostolic fathers in illustration of the language of the New Testa-ment.
Bretschneider's dogmatic writings were very numerous, and many of them passed through several editions. The only one which has been translated into English is his Manual of the Religion and History of the Christian Church, which appeared in 1857.
The dogmatic position of Bretschneider seems to be inter-mediate between the extreme school of naturalists, such as Paulus, Bohr, and Wegscheider on the one hand, and that of Strauss and Baur on the other. Recognizing a supernatural element in Scripture, he nevertheless allowed to the full the critical exercise of reason in the interpreta-tion of its dogmas. As a theologian he was deficient in speculative power, and his writings are marked by a certain dryness. His mental strength lay in the possession of a clear, cool judgment, which he never allowed to be influenced by feeling, and in the faculty of untiring industry.
For further information the reader is referred to his autobiography,
Am Meinen Lcben: Selbstbiographie von Karl Gottlieb Bretschneider,
Gotha, 1851, of which a translation, with notes, by Professor George
E. Day, appeared in the Bibliotheca Sacra and American Biblical
Repository, Nos. 36 and 38, 1852, 1853. (F. C.)









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