What is particularism?

particularism
Question: "What is particularism?"

Answer:
As with many words, the term particularism carries different meanings in different contexts. Particularism has been applied to sub-categories within diverse subjects such as politics, literature, history, ethics, and religion. Each of these topics brings a separate meaning to particularism, heavily influencing whether or not the idea is biblically justified. There are three areas in which the term particularism is most relevant to the Bible and Christian faith. These are theology, ethics, and philosophy.

As used in theology, defining particularism still requires context. The primary usage of the word relates it closely to the idea of exclusivism. In this meaning, particularism holds that there is a “particular” way for people to be saved—namely, through faith in Christ—and that there are no other means of salvation. This meaning of particularism contradicts the idea of there being many paths to salvation. We should note that the issue of how one is saved is actually separate from universalism. A person might believe that all people will eventually be saved—which is biblically incorrect—while also believing that only Christ’s death on the cross saves. Such a stance would be an example of particularism combined with universalism.

Another, somewhat less common theological use of the term particularism is as a synonym for the idea of predestination and/or limited atonement. The Particular Baptists use the term in that sense. In certain situations, theological particularism is meant to imply the concept of double predestination: the idea that God has defined a “particular” destiny for all people, saved or otherwise.

Ethically, the term particularism refers to the suggestion that moral judgments are only meaningful on a case-by-case basis. According to moral particularism, there are no objective or universal moral values, only decisions made as each particular instance unfolds. This approach is, of course, contrary to Scripture, which presents a very real difference between good and evil, transcending human opinion or judgment (Isaiah 55:9; Genesis 2:17; Deuteronomy 30:15). Moral particularism is also philosophically weak, in that any “judgment,” even on a case-by-case basis, assumes some standard by which to judge.

The one sense in which moral particularism finds biblical support is in the idea of “right judgment.” Biblically, we are commanded not to be shallow, legalistic, hypocritical, or foolish in our use of judgment (John 7:24). In that sense, we are meant to gauge moral issues on a “case-by-case” basis. It’s critical to note that Scripture does not suggest there are no objective moral values. On the contrary, the point made in the Bible is that we need to apply objective morality accurately (Romans 12:2), not in a legalistic or simplistic way. However, this is a nuance that moral particularism does not generally share.

In philosophy, particularism usually refers to the practice of asking, “What do I know?” before asking, “How do I know?” Philosophical particularism asserts the truth of a statement before—or even without—establishing reasons or justifications for it. “I don’t know how I know; I just know” is an expression of “blind faith,” an extreme version of philosophical particularism. As such, what is termed “epistemological particularism” is denounced for being insufficiently skeptical. To a large extent, the Bible agrees with this criticism—Scripture sees absolutely no virtue in being gullible or ignorant (Acts 17:11; Colossians 2:8; 1 Peter 3:15).

On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, a grain of epistemological particularism is unavoidable. Everyone believes something, even if it’s not well-justified. Before one can meaningfully discuss the nature of belief itself, one has to assume certain ideas; attempting to eliminate as many of these as possible led Descartes to distill the beginning of all philosophy as “I think, therefore I am.” But even this maxim begins by claiming that the statements “I am” and “I think” are known to be true—establishing a “what I know” before establishing “how I know.”

What’s important, both philosophically and biblically, is that we are willing to filter our assumptions and beliefs through some kind of justification, rather than simply insisting they are true, devoid of any evidence (1 John 4:1; 2 Peter 1:16). From that perspective, one can say that epistemological particularism is (mostly) contrary to the Bible’s stance on faith and belief. We are not meant to assume truth—we are meant to seek it (Matthew 7:7–8).

Recommended Resource: Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview by William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland

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