The Dynamic Realism of Mercersburg theology: The romantic pursuit of the ideal in the actual

William DiPuccio, Marquette University


Historians of American religion have acknowledged the critical role which philosophy played in the development of Mercersburg theology. Nevertheless, Mercersburg's philosophical center has remained generally elusive owing to its diversity and complexity. This dissertation attempts to resolve this problem by identifying a "new" philosophical model and demonstrating its relevance to Mercersburg's theological beliefs. This model, which we call "Dynamic Realism," synthesizes ideas from several sources including Platonism, romanticism, German idealism, medieval realism, and empiricism. This synthesis took place against a background of philosophical, theological, and cultural nominalism embodied in the Common Sense tradition espoused by Princeton and other schools. The philosophical center of Mercersburg theology is the belief that reality in creation is the reification of the ideal (i.e., the universal, eternal, and necessary) in the actual (i.e., the finite, temporal, and contingent). The archetype of this synthesis is the incarnation. Part I establishes the philosophical context of mid-nineteenth century American theology and documents the emergence of Dynamic Realism as a critical alternative to the nominalism and cartesian dualism of Locke and the Common Sense school. For Mercersburg, philosophy is viewed only through the paradigm of the incarnation. It is the incarnation which establishes the priority of the ideal over the actual, and the necessity of externalizing the spiritual and the ideal in history. Part II demonstrates the overall social and theological implications of Dynamic Realism. Nevin critiqued the underlying causes of materialism, religious skepticism, and individualism in American society. Over and against these he offered a form of philosophical idealism which reestablished the primacy of the ideal over the material, affirmed the reality and epistemological objectivity of the spiritual realm, and elevated organic wholeness above individuality. Part III demonstrates how the doctrines of Mercersburg flow spontaneously from the philosophy of Dynamic Realism. Beginning with the division of the cosmos into the spheres of nature and supernature, the supernatural economy of salvation revealed in Jesus Christ is manifested historically in the church, the sacraments, and the Scriptures. All turns upon the incarnation as the paradigm by which "the powers of the world to come" are made present in time and space.

Recommended Citation

DiPuccio, William, "The Dynamic Realism of Mercersburg theology: The romantic pursuit of the ideal in the actual" (1994). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9433774.