Sara Paretsky is known for her fictional crime novels featuring the character V. I. Warshawski. But few are aware that she received a Ph.D in 1977 from the University of Chicago in history. This book is an edited version of her dissertation that considers the changing ideals of the New England Calvinists throughout the nineteenth century.
Paretsky argues that the orthodox Calvinists lost their hold on the major New England seminaries when biblical studies began to appropriate other disciplines to interpret the Bible. Focusing particularly on the faculty of Andover Theological Seminary, she cites the linguist, Moses Stuart (1780–1852), as a prime example. Stuart employed the historical critical method in his study of philology, believing that the study of language within its context would authenticate the message of the Bible and prove its truth statements. But Stuart’s students would take their studies to another level. They began their study of language and science to the exclusion of the scriptures. In doing so, Paretsky notes, men like Edwards Amasa Parks (1808–1900) unwittingly divided theology from science, and B. B. Edwards (1802–1852) divided philology from hermeneutics. Hence, the tail began wagging the dog; the Bible could no long self-authenticate. It needed other measures to explain it. One notable example could be found in the re-interpretation of Genesis to accommodate an old age of the earth as promoted by secular geologists. Prior to that point, Biblicists took a six-day creation at face value. As scientific study interpreted the Bible rather than allowing scripture to speak for itself, theology lost its place as the queen of the sciences in New England seminaries and universities.
Paretsky is not an evangelical, but she is sympathetic to the New England Calvinists. She offers a fair and balanced assessment of the participants involved. The author is well acquainted with the sources as well as the historical figures and arguments of the period. Forty years ago, she had access to the private papers of E. A. Parks through his descendants (now presumed lost). Through her synthesis of that research, she portrays a reasonable explanation of how science and philology shifted to interpret data over and above the truth claims of scripture. This may not be the usual fare for most pastors and even history buffs in the pews, but it certainly provides a helpful voice for anyone seeking a robust understanding of shifts in American theological education and, hence, the thinking of the church.