Particularism Then and Now

Reconciling the Paleoconservative and Reformed Traditions

In an age of egalitarianism and androgyny, particularity is all but dead. Fundamental to modern liberalism is the idea that everyone is the same. Any straying from this orthodoxy is deemed as racism, sexism, or any of the other ism’s. Diversity is to be celebrated until it is acknowledged in a way that is seen as distasteful by others. This framing often seeps heavily into one’s broader political framework. “Of course Iraq needs liberal democracy, if the West can do it then surely they can!” Things such as this are often asserted without any consideration of the character of the people, their customs, culture, religion, or history. Any attempt to discuss things of this nature will just be dismissed as harmful generalizations. This universalist framing of politics does more harm than good and hinders good governance. Not only has this conception of politics been rejected by the tradition of the Old Right, but it is rejected even by many within the Reformed theological tradition. Franciscus Junius, a French theologian and student of John Calvin, is particularly helpful on this topic, having written an entire work on politics and its relation to the law of Moses entitled The Mosaic Polity. The following will seek to define particularism within the paleoconservative tradition, outline Franciscus Junius’ conception of law, and from his conception of law demonstrate how this shaped his particularist approach towards how one ought to govern in the political order.

Particularism in the Conservative Tradition

Prior to examining Junius’ conception of law and its relation to his particularist approach to governance, it is important to define what particularism is in the context of the conservative tradition so that we may then accommodate Junius to its terms. By conservative I mean specifically the paleoconservative tradition of the Right. According to C. Jay Engel in his contribution to A Paleoconservative Anthology entitled “The Triumph of the Political: Post-Libertarianism at the End of the American Ideology,” “Paleoconservatism” as a term refers to “a revival of the Old Right, a tradition that had gone out of style after the first half of the last century.” This emphasis on a revival of the Old Right is in contradistinction to the emergence of the Neoconservatives in the last half of the twentieth century, who were more universalist in their conception of politics as opposed to the more particularist approach of the Old Right. “Universalism” refers to the idea that “there is a set of political absolutes applicable to all individuals, independent of their particular situations or experience… The universalist conceives of the ultimate standards of just and good societies as more fundamental than existing tensions; the politically and culturally specific supposedly stands in the way of our participation in a just world society.” Universalism operates within a paradigm that sees human nature as fundamentally universal and thus able to be governed by universal principles regardless of particular peoples or situations. If all people are human and can be governed by universal principles, focusing on particulars as fundamental to politics would be useless and only propagate primitive forms of petty government which were prominent prior to the discovery of these universal principles grounded in objective truth which allow politics to transcend these particulars.

This is opposed to the particularist approach of the Old Right. In contrast to universalism, the “conservative-particularist approach to political priorities values historically rooted institutions, organic hierarchies, and inherited socio-political customs… Thus, the particularist disposition perceives social problems not through the lens of universal abstractions and political ideals that transcend specific issues, but focuses rather on the peculiar needs and conditions of the varying interests within an actual, real-world political order.” The primary concern of particularism is that in governing, one ought to always take into account particular peoples with particular histories in particular regions, as relying exclusively on universal principles divorced from these is futile. Particularism does not deny universal concepts or the existence of objective moral principles that all peoples ought to be subject to. It is not a right-wing version of cultural relativism, rather it operates outside a paradigm of strict political ideals and when necessary applies certain universal principles grounded in the moral law in accordance with the particular needs and situations of those being governed. While a universalist may try to claim something similar, the particularist takes another step and not only seeks to apply the universal moral law in particular ways but does so in a manner that looks to historical precedent. While the universal moral law may command one thing, the particularist-historicist approach will apply this in accordance with a people’s cultural identity and history rather than mere universal abstractions detached from particularities.

Junius’ Conception of Law

Having established what particularism is within the context of the conservative tradition, it is time to briefly delve into Franciscus Junius’ conception of law. Junius’ understanding of law is the necessary backdrop for being able to understand his particularism when it comes to how the magistrate of a commonwealth ought to govern as he explains in his work, The Mosaic Polity. It ought to be noted that this conception of law is not unique to Junius and is the classic Thomistic formulation. 

Junius defines law as “the ordering of reason to the common good established by the one who has care of the community.” Junius notes that law is instituted by one who has care of a community through reason for the common good. Law is not simply made up by a ruler for a people, but through reason something is accessed in order to form a just law suitable for a people to be governed by. That which is accessed by reason is the eternal law. Junius defines eternal law as “the immutable concept and form of reason existing before all time in God the founder of the universe.” This eternal law is of the very character and nature of God, a pure unadulterated act that is totally immutable. It being of the very essence of God means it cannot be directly accessed but known only through participation and communication. Participation in this context means that something reflects a form in the mind of God, as a surface being reflected on by a light can be said to, in a sense, participate in the source of the light. Another way it can be defined is as a sharing in or communication of one thing with another. In the context of civil law, a just law can be said to more fully participate or share in the eternal law because it better reflects God’s eternal law than an unjust law. How is one able to determine whether a law is just and thus more fully participates in the eternal law? Through determining if a civil law is in accord with the moral law. The moral law is the eternal law condescended in a way that can be understood by man. It is a transcript of God’s nature that reveals the precepts for determining what is just and what is unjust. Since one cannot directly access the eternal law, he participates in it through the moral law. 

The moral law is revealed to man by God in two ways: through natural law and divine law. Junius defines natural law as “that which is innate to creatures endowed with reason and informs them with common notions of nature, that is, with principles and conclusions adumbrating the eternal law by a certain participation.” He defines divine law as “that which has been inspired by God, infused in rational creatures, and informs them with common and individual notions beyond nature for the purpose of transmitting them to a supernatural end by a supernatural leading.” 

The natural law is God’s manner of revealing his moral law through creation and is innate in man while the divine law is God’s manner of revealing his moral law through supernatural revelation and is infused into man. Natural law is God’s revelation in nature while divine law is God’s revelation in scripture. What is obscure in the natural law is clarified and exposited through divine law. Junius argues that the law of Moses is a perfect expression of the natural law, as it, functioning as divine law by virtue of its source of revelation, perfectly applies the moral law, taught innately in all men by nature, for the particular needs of the ancient people of Israel.

Junius’ Particularism 

Junius’ particularism flows directly from his conception of law. In his preface to The Mosaic Polity, Junius says of the Mosaic law, “For he [God] adapted each and every one of his laws not merely by a common plan to the race of the Jews… considered as human beings according to their nature, but truly he most providentially accommodated all things in a certain, unique way to their persons, affairs, and circumstances considered as a body of the children of God and as his very own house of living stones united through grace.” Junius in his preface makes clear that the law of Moses— By “law of Moses” or “Mosaic law” Junius is, in particular, emphasizing the civil elements of the law—was particularly accommodated to the people of Israel in accordance with them as persons, their affairs, and circumstances. This echoes the conservative-particularist approach of paleoconservatives towards the emphasis of people, place, history, and inherited socio-political customs in regard to how one ought to conduct politics. According to Junius the law of Moses, though it alone of all human laws is perfect, is particular to the people of Israel and need not be adapted by all other societies, as they have their own particular needs and likely behave differently as a people than the Israelites did. Thus, a particular people have human law formed in accordance with their needs on the basis of eternal law, which produces the natural law and infuses the divine law. The magistrate as the lawmaker plays a unique role in crafting human law by looking principally to the natural and divine law in order that his human laws may more fully participate in the eternal law and be of assistance to the particular people he governs in maintaining a just society and orienting those subject to the law to earthly and heavenly life. He does this by constructing both general and specific conclusions from “natural principles in the political science, and appoint[ing] individual determinations adapted to human society and order, according to the reason of the eternal law that has been sketched in the nature of a human being.” In continuing to emphasize the importance of particularity in regard to laws, Junius states, “we speak about the law of the Athenians, Lacedaemonians, Romans, Persians, or any other people… If the particular legal codes of one people were established in another place it would be harmful to that community.” Johannes Althusius echoes the sentiment as well, writing in his Politica, “The magistrate should [for the sake of leading well] know the nature and attitude of his own people, of neighboring peoples, and of people in general.” 

From the particularism of Junius, it is clear that his conception of politics and how the magistrate ought to govern accords more with the paleoconservative tradition of the Old Right than it does with the universalist approach taken by many neo-conservatives and libertarians. While Junius holds that the eternal law is the objective, universal, and immutable moral standard, revealed in natural and divine law through participation, by which all human laws must be in accord with in order to be just, he also goes to great lengths to stress the importance of particularity in regard to people, place, and custom as regarding governance. Were Junius a universalist he would have argued that the law of Moses was perfect not only for the ancient people of Israel but was, by virtue of its divine inspiration, so perfect that it transcended particularities and serves as the universal standard of law for all peoples and thus ought to be implemented as is among all peoples. 

While Junius does affirm that the law of Moses is perfect and lacks any imperfection, he simultaneously expresses that its perfection is by virtue of its direct divine source and specifically is perfect for the people of Israel in their context. Junius speaks of the errors of those who attempt to universalize the law of Moses, stating that “some people [erroneously] concluded that since the whole rationale of the [Mosaic] law is divine, each and every member of that law is catholic, that is, every law applies universally and commonly to all persons, matters, times, places, and other circumstances as if only that which is of a general character exists in the law.” This error of universalism is rejected by Junius in favor of a particularism which takes into account the particular needs of a people for the purpose of a loving magistrate crafting and enforcing law on his subjects to orient them toward their earthly and heavenly good in Christ.


The Christian right must take into account their anthropological and civil assumptions when approaching politics as Christians. One must be able to acknowledge both a universal, or eternal, law that governs all things and all human beings while also being willing to acknowledge the particular applications of this law for particular peoples. This emphasis of the Old Right is not theologically without warrant but is present also within the Reformed tradition in the works of men such as Franciscus Junius, Johannes Althusius, and more. One who is interested in embracing a rooted conservatism and retrieving various theological truths from the tradition must synthesize these findings into a robust political theology that seeks to advocate for just laws that both honor God and are appropriate for the cultural and historical context of those under such laws. 

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Matthew Pearson

Matthew Pearson is a graduate from the University of South Florida with a major in Religious Studies and minor in Philosophy. He works in construction and is a prospective student at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando. He can be found on Twitter @_matthewpearson.

5 thoughts on “Particularism Then and Now

  1. The problems with the above article stem from the giving of imprecise definition because the use of all-or-nothing thinking, traditionalism, and authoritarianism.

    First, modern liberalism does not say that all people are the same or are identical. But then again, sometimes definitions are created to make specific points. Also, there are multiple definitions for modern liberalism depending where and when that concept is being employed. In America, it has come to involve equality both before the law and in the access of certain goods and services. Also, American modern liberalism emphasizes civil liberties. But modern liberalism has changed over time. Its most modern applications recognizes distinctions in gender identity and biological sex. And so there it is difficult to say that modern liberals believe that everyone is the same.

    Here we should note that modern conservatism in America revolves around authoritarianism with hierarchy. I can’t speak to what Franciscus Junius said except for what the above article claims, but Calvin himself was very much an authoritarian in many respects. So it isn’t surprising what he thought about the Law of Moses. And the above article confirms this. Note that in the above article, the Magistrate has replaced the representative government and the common good has replace the balance between the rights of the people, equality, and their freedoms. It’s not that the common good is not present in the representative governments. It is that there are other emphases. While the role of the Magistrate in government is to act as society’s parent.

    Second, it is one thing to respect and learn from our traditions, it is another thing to be a traditionalist. While the former enables us to learn from the past, the latter makes us as dependent on the past for interpreting and responding to the world and life as narcissists are dependent on the present to do the same. In addition, what universalism does with laws irrespective of people’s location, traditionalism does the same only with respect to time. And one would think that a person who calls so much attention to particularism would recognize the distinction between being able to learn from the past from being overly dependent on the past. For those who point out particularities would not consistently believe that all time periods are the same or identical. And therefore a person who draws our attention to particularities would know enough not to take the path of the traditionalist.

    Third, there is the authoritarianism. One only needs to put 2+2+2 together when reading about particularity, the law of Moses, and the Christian Magistrate to see that the answer is authoritarianism. And here come the storm clouds that had been lingering on the horizon but no more. Today we face the possible demise of democracy with equality with the emergence of authoritarianism with hierarchy. To be more specific, the authoritarianism that seems to be challenging Europe and America are the authoritarian ethnocratic movements. Here we should note, and here is a particularity, that some of those movements revolve around secular ethnic categories while others revolve around religion–yes, religion is an ethnic category. Some of those ethnocratic movements make national origin, descent, and/or language their hubs while others use religion.

    What some in those authoritarian ethnocratic movements seem to want is a world where nations are more ethnically defined or more homogeneous as they were prior to WW I. Unfortunately, there are no historical reasons to believe that such an ethnic defining of nations would not see history repeat itself.

    What is missing in the above article and its view of the law of Moses is the New Testament use of that law for Gentile believers. Acts 12 and Acts 15, among other places, show a general relaxing of that law on Gentile believers. That is because, as the leaders asked at the Jerusalem Conference, why should they put a burden on the Gentiles that even those leaders could not bear? And then, especially when we get to the writings of Paul, there is a further relaxing of the Law of Moses on Gentile believers and even a relaxing of what some of what Jesus taught. Rather than following the Law of Moses in terms of how Christians should treat each other, they should use the grace and mercy given to them in Christ as a model for how to treat one another especially when Christians wrong each other.

    With regard to Natural Law, we should note that really there are natural laws because there are various versions of Natural Law that have been defined. In fact, one version uses what we witness in nature as providing a natural laws. The intentions of some Christians for using the Law of Moses to define Natural Law is to introduce Christian control of the government. We should note that with God’s Natural Law, it isn’t embraced by all and so what should we use to help determine which parts should be binding and which parts should not be in terms of a nation’s laws

    Finally, why should the duties of the Christian Magistrate be any different than that the Secular Magistrate? Why should they be any different unless the Christian Magistrate believes in running the government and society as if it were a church. And such a confusion between a church and society goes against what is taught in the New Testament.

    1. The problems with the above comment stem from the fact that its author is a pagan who suffers from brain damage and low T.

      1. Psalm,
        Actually I hold to the fundmentals of the Christian faith that have historically distinguished Christian orthodoxy from liberal theology.

    2. I don’t think there is anything in the above article opposed to representative government in the U.S.–though it might affirm that as something that is a result of American (and adjacent cultures’) experience rather than something which can be readily exported to all countries or at least as something which would take different forms in different cultures.

      1. Ian,
        I think that the references to the Christian Magistrate as the lawmaker who governs according to…, is at least suggesting that there should not or will not be any representative government.

        The magistrate as the lawmaker plays a unique role in crafting human law by looking principally to the natural and divine law in order that his human laws may more fully participate in the eternal law and be of assistance to the particular people he governs in maintaining a just society and orienting those subject to the law to earthly and heavenly life.

        That line alone also shows the direction of the Magistrate whether he be one or many. The Magistrate is to rule by what he, or they, see as being divine law rather than protecting the rights of the people and following their direction. That direction is not the direction of a representative government regardless of its form. At least that is how I see it.

        Do you see it differently? If so, can you go into details as to why?

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