Particularism and Christianity

JP Moreland has an interesting lecture on Skepticism and Epistemology here. He argues that our current society is hostile to religious and moral knowledge and perhaps even knowledge in general. One of his goals is to explain how we know what we know.

He claims that the duty of "knowers" is to simultaneously believe as many truths as possible while disbelieving as many falsehoods a possible. In other words, be capable of sorting one’s beliefs from good to bad. If our goal were simply to believe as many true things as possible, our task would be easier, we could simply believe everything. Similarly, if our goal were simply to avoid false beliefs, our task would be easy, simply don’t belief anything. The "Problem of the Criteria" is how do we separate our true beliefs from our false beliefs? How do we begin our sorting task?

There are three main answers to the knowledge sorting problem. The first view is Epistemological Methodism. This view holds that before I know something, I must start with a criterion that answers "How do I know it?" Apparently Descartes tried to postulate the criteria of "That which is clear and distinct in the mind" to answer the skeptic leading him the statement "I think therefore I am." However, this view has a problem. Before knowing proposition P, one must know the criterion C, and the fact R: "P satisfies C." This leads the question of “how do I know both C and R?” which leads to an infinite regress.

The second view is Particularism. This view is that there are specific things I know and I don’t need to know how I know them in order to know them. This view starts with particular knowledge claims, criteria may be developed by reflecting on particular knowledge. The criteria developed can be developed to help with difficult cases, but the criteria are no more basic than the particular pieces of knowledge that inspired them. For example, I know 2+2=4. By reflecting on arithmetic knowledge, I may be able to develop axioms of arithmetic. But if my axioms then show 2+2 is not 4, I would conclude my axioms are wrong, not that I don’t know 2+2 = 4.

The third view is Skepticism. Skeptics conclude that there is no solution to the problem of the criteria. They think that the “Methodists” are caught in an infinite regress and the Particularist is begging the question. However, how would the skeptic know that the Particularist is begging the question?

J.P concludes that Particularism is the correct view. That we can know things even if it’s possible we’re wrong. The mere possibility we are wrong is no reason to think we are wrong. I think his view on Epistemology has some merit.

JP goes on to make the case that a “Divine Law Giver” makes the most sense of morality and moral knowledge. (It wasn’t in his lecture, but he could have said moral laws seem like commands, and commands only make sense as communication between minds). For the sake of this post, I will grant that there is a God who makes sense of moral law.

However, I think Particularism poses some serious difficulties for Christianity as well. To see how, it is helpful to reflect on the nature of morality. In some cases, the same action can be either moral or immoral depending on the motive of the actor. For example, suppose a boy tripped someone. If he did it to enjoy seeing the tripped in pain, the action would be immoral. However, if he did it to prevent the tripped from being hit by a bus, the action is commendable.

In addition, a lack of action can be moral or immoral. If one has knowledge of a serious pending crime like terrorism, they would have a duty to report it. Neglecting to act in this case would be immoral. Where there is no motive, like in natural disasters, we may think the results are tragic, but the natural cause is not blamed. Who would blame the meteor for falling out the sky and destroying property?

By reflecting on these and other particular moral truths, I am justified in claiming that I know:
  • In order for an action (or inaction) to be moral or immoral a motive must attach to that action.
  • Punishing someone for the crimes of someone else is immoral (also see Deuteronomy 24:16)

Now examine 1 Samuel 15:2-3. Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Samuel claims that God wants the Israelites to kill every man, woman, child, infant, cattle, etc. That in itself may not be wrong, however note the motive that Samuel attributes to God. This attack is punishment for crimes committed over 300 year prior. The sentence is carried out on infants and nursing mothers who cannot have taken part in the act that caused the judgment.

Notice that Samuel attaches an evil motive to the action. This makes the action evil. Thus, if someone believes that there is a God who is the basis for the moral law written on our hearts, they are justified in concluding that the God is not the one referred to in the Bible. If someone says “God wants you to make the board 5 feet long because 2+2 = 5.” I would conclude that person is slandering God’s intelligence. Here, I think I am justified in thinking Samuel is slandering God’s character.

There are some common rejoinders to this conclusion that I would like to address now. The first is God is within his rights to take any life and could have had a good reason the kill the infants and the killing could even be merciful. (Geisler and Howe make this point in their book “When Critics Ask.”) That is true, but misses the point. The point is that Samuel attributed a motive to God and that motive is evil. There could very well be good reasons for killing infants, but punishment for the sins of long dead ancestors is not one of them. Samuel is slandering God here. He should have offered a good reason, but he didn’t. If you are a Christian, what would Samuel have to say before you were convinced he was not speaking for God?

The second objection is that without God, I have no basis for claiming moral knowledge. Firstly, this objection confuses me (a particularist) with an epistemological Methodist. A second point is that I am not presuming God is not the basis for morality. I am merely claiming that if there is a God that is the Basis for morality, it is not the God of Samuel.


John W. Loftus said...

Is it possible that when no Christian responds it's because you stumped them? If so, congratulations! Keep it up.

Paul Manata said...

Barny Frapplegait once challenged Tito Ortiz to a fight, Ortiz didn't respond, guess he was afraid of Fraplegait.

Anyway, here's a quote from Loftus' "Read This" post on the DC sidebar:

"We will respond to the posts we choose to respond to if we have the time. But please don’t assume that because we didn't respond to a post that it means anything at all."

Lastly, I have about 6 or 7 posts that Loftus never bothered responding to. They were not generic posts like this one, but specific refutation of his position, I guess his non-response means I stumped him?

Anyway, it's always easy to catch Loftus refuting himself.

Abe Lewis said...

Is it possible, based upon the text, that God is punishing the original offenders by killing their descendents, etc? The fact that they aren't alive doesn't prevent it from being punishment, especially in the Christian (or most other ancient) worldview(s). That seems like a very legitimate interpretation that completely sidesteps your objection. Now, you might say that, if so, it seems like much more of a punishment for Amalek's descendents, but that's a separate issue.

Bill Curry said...


To quote my post “The mere possibility we are wrong is no reason to think we are wrong.” Your reply seems to imply either (or maybe both) that 1) The moral law giver is incapable of dispensing sufficient punishment directly to the guilty individuals after their deaths or 2) Killing innocent (relative to the stated crime) individuals is really not punishment to the killed individuals. (Feel free to offer your own moral postulates if my characterization doesn’t capture the essence of your objection.)

Now I am a particularist. I don’t agree with either of the moral postulates that you have seemingly offered. If you could offer clear examples (that I would agree with) that reinforce your moral postulates, then you have given me reason to reconsider my position. That is what I tried to do. I made moral claims and sustained a burden of proof. I reasoned from easy to understand examples before offering the first criterion. To make your case, you need to shoulder a burden of proof as well.

I also offered Deuteronomy 24:16 as corroboration to my second moral fact. Why wouldn’t “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” imply a general moral principle applicable to Samuel? If it isn’t, how could you possibly interpret any moral precept found in the Bible?

Keep in mind that I am approaching this text as a theist/deist. What hypothesis should I think is more likely? The moral law giver instructs his followers to kill infants for other peoples’ sins, or that some guy is using God’s name as a justification to get people to do what he wants.

EV said...

An interesting post. Perhaps you would have time to answer two questions I have.

(1) You say:

By reflecting on these and other particular moral truths, I am justified in claiming that I know:
* In order for an action (or inaction) to be moral or immoral a motive must attach to that action.
* Punishing someone for the crimes of someone else is immoral

Are you saying that you are justified in claiming to know the principle that (to pick just one) "punishing someone for the crimes of someone else is immoral" based on your reflection of particular instances in which A punished B for C's crime, and A was wrong to do so? If so, wouldn't you then be developing a criteria for right action, namely, "Any punishment of one person for the crimes of another is wrong"?

If so, it seems the particularist is justified in always holding that criteria to be revisable based on further particular acts of punishment of the same kind (A punishes B for C's crimes) that are not immoral. (I'm not suggesting it's wrong for the particularist to develop criteria; it's just that the particularist will always hold the criteria with less certainty than the particular instances.) Perhaps one would say that this could never come about. But the particularist, if I understand particularism correctly, will be a bit loathe to say that.

(In reading over your response to Abe, I suspect that you would agree with this, though I'm not certain.)

(2) I don't understand how the objection you raise depends upon particularism being true, as opposed to methodism. Couldn't the methodist just posit your same principles ("In order for an action (or inaction) to be moral or immoral a motive must attach to that action" and "Punishing someone for the crimes of someone else is immoral") as criteria for right action and reach the same conclusions you do?

Abe Lewis said...


A reasonable alternative to (1) that I would be inclined to suggest is 3) God has deemed the destruction of Amalek's descendents to be a desirable method of punishing Amalek for reasons that may or may not be beyond our ability to perceive. Here's an example, perhaps he wanted the surrounding nations to witness what ultimately happens to nations that ambush Israel.

I wouldn't go so far as asserting point (2), but I would point out that Christianity teaches that all humans (with the exception of Jesus) deserve death and so the death of Amalek's descendents at God's command is justifiable simply as the cessation of God's mercy toward them. But even if you don't accept that, it is important to remember that Christianity, like most monotheisms, teaches that the fulfillment of God's justice is something that will come at the Judgement--both ultimate punishment for crimes and ultimate compensation for wrongs suffered. In other words, unlike humans, there is no "wrong" that God would commit toward us (if you even accept that God can wrong his own creations) that he can't perfectly ammend. Does that seem sensible?

Regarding Deuteronomy 24:16: I would take that as a command of how Israelites should generally treat other people, based upon the fact that that's what the all the preceding and following verses obviously are. They should not be taken as timeless moral codes (though they may be based on such codes). But even if they are, there is no reason to think that they apply to God in the same way they apply to humans.

24:15 You shall give [a poor servant] his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he will not cry against you to the LORD and it become sin in you.

24:17 You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow's garment in pledge.

There is a further complication in Deuteronomy 25:17-19, "Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt, how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall come about when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget." Good rules of interpretation would require us to conclude that the author's intended meaning of 24:16 was not in contradiction of 25:17-19.

If I simply took this story in isolation and knew nothing relavent about Samuel, Israel, Amalek, or theology, I would probably conclude that Samuel was simply pretending to have heard from God. However, when you add to the mix the context of the prophecy of Amalek's destruction, other examples of God punishing groups for sins of their members, Samuel's miracles demonstrating his authenticity as a prophet, etc. I don't think that's an obvious interpretation anymore.

I hope this makes sense.

Bill Curry said...


I think you have accurately characterized my position. You are correct that I hold my moral criteria contingently. There may be a better criteria/moral hypothesis that makes sense of the particular moral facts I accept. I need to be open to revising what I believe based upon facts made aware to me. Even though I use criteria to sort beliefs, someone could point out that my criteria is flawed, and I may have to re-evaluate my beliefs. I am actually going through this process now, having recently been convinced Christianity is not true. I held a lot of beliefs because of my Christianity, and it is a challenge to re-evaluate my positions on many things.

As to your question of couldn’t the objection still hold if Methodism is the best way of obtaining knowledge? I suppose a Methodist could make the same claim, but the way I would defend my claim would be very different. For example, the objection “it is possible you are wrong” has more force to a Methodist than to a Particularist. J.P. claims that the Methodism was used to obtain certainty. If you grant you need certainty before having knowledge there is very little, if anything, that you know. Defending any knowledge claim becomes very difficult.

Some people claim that I can’t hold to absolute moral standards unless I have an ontological basis for morality. This objection is essentially trying to shift the burden of proof by getting me to behave as a Methodist. I have at least two questions for those raising that objection. 1) Why should I think I need to have a worked out ontology before claiming to know moral truths? 2) How would one know that the ontology is sufficient to support a particular knowledge claim?

I think the approach I am using is fair and promotes discussion. My claims may not be known with absolute certainty, but not much can be known with certainty anyway. It is true I may have to revise my beliefs when someone actually provides evidence. However, when they raise a merely “logically possible” objection, I think I am justified in rejecting it.


I agree that there could have been good reasons for killing the Amalekites, even the infants. The problem for Christians is not only did Samuel give a bad reason, but that bad reason was codified in the cannon of Christian scripture. If Samuel had said, “Go and kill the Amalekites in accordance with prophecy,” or “the Amalekites will be a danger to you,” or if Samuel had not attributed a reason to God at all then my objection would not have nearly the force.

If there is a God who intends to provide scripture and if “all scripture” is profitable for “instruction in righteousness,” then I think it is reasonable to conclude that the writing of Samuel is not part of that scripture. What moral precept are you supposed to take away from the justification offered by Samuel? Why would his inclusion of the justification be better than not providing the justification? I don’t understand why you think the surrounding text justifies giving a pass to the 1 Samuel 15. Keep in mind, the whole question is “Is the Bible the word of God?” Why shouldn’t I believe the Bible is slandering the Amalekites, just as it is apparently slandering God?

An aside here, I do want to thank you for attacking my argument and not me personally. I have been very impressed by the level of discourse I have seen here.

EV said...

Bill wrote:

As to your question of couldn’t the objection still hold if Methodism is the best way of obtaining knowledge? I suppose a Methodist could make the same claim, but the way I would defend my claim would be very different.

If this is true, then I guess I'm not clear how it is particularism that presents serious difficulties for Christianity? (Bill said, "I think Particularism poses some serious difficulties for Christianity as well.")

My thinking is that if the methodist could make the same claims (but defend them on different grounds), I don't see how it's particularism that's causing the trouble. The same moral principles could just as easily be offered by a methodist. So it seems that it's the moral principles that are causing the problems, not necessarily particularism.

But perhaps I'm just splitting hairs.

Bill Curry said...


Particularism gives a good epistemic grounding for asserting knowledge moral truths. Moreland argues that methodism does not. He would argue that accepting methodism leads to skepticism of all knowledge. Moreland proposed that particularism gives one good grounds to reject skepticism, materialism, and atheism. He implied that it was good for Christianity. I saw that moral knowledge (justified through particularism) also presented challenge for Christianity. I suppose it is not particularism itself that presents the challenge, rather the moral knowledge.

By way of illustration, Steve Hays at Triablogue stated in response to my post here that “You can’t answer the epistemic question in the affirmative until you address the metaphysical question of whether there is a right or wrong to be known in the first place. What makes something right or wrong? What metaphysical conditions must be met for moral truths to exist?” He must think that I in order to have moral knowledge, I must be able to show that I have a sufficient ontological justification.

As a particularist, I can just reject his assertion here. Why does he think moral knowledge requires more justification than I have provided? Has he given me examples of knowledge that requires ontological justification? Obviously, he has not. I can think of no reason to take his assertion seriously.

However, a Methodist would be committed to providing justification through criteria. That would allow Steve to just continue ask “How do you know that?” after every response I would give.

chris said...


Excellent post, and a great exchange. You sound like a reasonable man who is after truth.