Disarming “Shoot First” Apologetics

Jill Martin Rische

January 20, 2007




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It is a sad fact of Church History that Christians spend a great deal of time arguing with each other.  A recent example of this is Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary and his dispute with the late Dr. Walter Martin.  In his article, published by Christianity Today (November, 2006), Mouw implies that Walter Martin practiced “Shoot First” Apologetics (a polemic title)—and that he knew better—after being warned against it by his good friend and mentor, Donald Grey Barnhouse.

To support his point, Mouw quotes an illustration on bluebirds and grackles given to Walter Martin by Donald Barnhouse.  Apparently, the two men had been talking out at the Barnhouse farm, where Barnhouse walked the grounds shooting pesky grackles [aggressive blackbirds], and Barnhouse gave an Martin an object lesson on how one must be careful (when aiming at birds and people) to shoot only the grackles.

But there is a logical fallacy in Richard Mouw’s argument that is surprising, considering his place in academia.  Mouw chose to set up a Straw Man argument, a caricature of Walter Martin and his approach to apologetics, instead of representing him fairly.  The birds Barnhouse shot on his farm were far away; Walter Martin’s meticulous research brought him up close to the grackles.  He aimed precisely.  It seems as if Mouw never read a footnote in any of Walter Martin’s work.  Martin quoted primary source material—he meticulously identified his targets using their own intelligence.

Two more serious errors Mouw makes are these:  First, ignorance of his two subjects, Walter Martin and Donald Barnhouse.  If Richard Mouw knew Walter Martin at all, he would be familiar with the story he always told about his friend, Rocky Marciano, the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  In it, Marciano gives a great sermon illustration with his “peek-a-boo” style of boxing: “If I was fighting a guy like you, Walt,” he said,

“And you could hit anywhere near as hard as I could, you would annihilate me.  I’d never get close enough to hit you.  I learned that long ago, so I developed a style:  Cover-up, peek-a-boo.  I took the blows on my arms, my shoulders, and sometimes on my face—five, six, seven, eight to one—because I knew if I could get in close enough, I could take them out with one shot.”

My father loved this illustration.  Get in close with the Word of God, whatever it takes: this accurately describes the apologetic style of Walter Martin.  He never advocated aiming in ignorance from far away.

It seems as if Richard Mouw did not know Donald Barnhouse, either.  In academic research, context is everything, but Mouw chose to leave out the historical context surrounding this story.  He left out the fact that Barnhouse loved and supported Walter Martin—and my father loved and respected him.  This close relationship meant that Barnhouse would have rebuked my father privately and publicly if he truly believed Walter Martin used “Shoot First” Apologetics.  He also left out the fact that Donald Barnhouse did not shy away from confrontation.  He believed quite strongly in the power of Negative Thinking.  The proof of this lies in another story my father told about Barnhouse:

“I’ll never forget the time when my teacher, Donald Grey Barnhouse, told me of a luncheon he had with Norman Vincent Peale—who was then riding the crest of the wave on the power of positive thinking.  They had chatted for a few minutes when Peale unexpectedly remarked, “I’d like a candid answer, Donald.  I know you’ll give me one.  What do you really think of what I’ve written on the power of positive thought?”

Donald Barnhouse was quiet for a moment before replying, “Well, I can only tell you what a great many clergymen have said to me.”

“And what is that?” asked Peale.

“Paul is appealing, but Peale is appalling,” said Barnhouse, irrepressible as ever.  “You have forgotten the most important thing.  Before anyone can think positively, they must think negatively.”

“What do you mean by that?” Peale asked.

“Look,” said Barnhouse, “I am a sinner.  Negative or positive?”


“I am a lost sinner.  Negative or positive?”


“I am going to eternal judgment.  Negative or positive.”


Dr. Barnhouse smiled, “Those are three negative propositions, without which, you cannot think positively.  ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved’ (Acts 16:31).  But if you don’t think the first three, you’ll never get to the fourth.”

“I never thought of it quite that way before,” answered Dr. Peale, rather disturbed.

“You must write a new book,” said Dr. Barnhouse, “The Power of Negative Thinking.”

“I can’t do that; it would ruin me!”

“Get out the truth,” said Barnhouse.  “The Lord will take care of it.”

He never wrote the book, but Dr. Peale was told what he should do.  The truth of the matter is this:  Whatever the cost—tell the truth.  This is what we must do.  Speak the truth in love, but for the sake of Christ, let’s speak it!”


Donald Barnhouse did not mince words.  If he told Norman Vincent Peale his opinion of his book, he would have warned the evangelical world against Walter Martin if he thought he was in error.  Instead, he named him “The Bible Answer Man” and helped pay for his Master’s degree.

A final mistake Richard Mouw makes is a mix up in weapons.  Any familiarity with Walter Martin’s work would reveal that his weapon was the Sword of the Spirit—the Word of God—not a hair-trigger, Ad Hominem gun.  Guns kill, and Walter Martin never aimed to kill.  He loved people, and the only thing he wanted to kill was the false doctrine that would send them to Hell.  My father’s weapon was the Bible, and it is a precision instrument: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

What kind of apologetics did Walter Martin practice?  I think he said it best:

“I love Mormons.  I love Jehovah's Witnesses.  I love the people in the cults.  I care.  I'm fighting for their lives; for their souls.  That's love.  Love isn't this sickly, gooey, syrupy garbage that flows out; where people are forever saying with this plastic evangelical smile plastered to their faces, 'Jesus loves you.  Jesus loves you.  We want you to be born again.'  Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths!  In the name of God, people are dying in their sins.  You have to tell them more than 'Jesus loves you.'  You have to tell them Jesus is going to judge them!  If they are not going to receive love, they're going to receive justice.  As long as we do not tell the whole story the world will tolerate us.  But if we tell the world the whole truth, it will hate us as it hated him.  Controversy is part and parcel of the Christian heritage.  You cannot escape it if you truly want to serve Jesus Christ.”

Richard Mouw, the man who told Christians they had “sinned against” Mormons and suggested they celebrate Joseph Smith’s birthday, did not write his article from a neutral perspective.  I suppose we can all be thankful he acknowledges that grackles do exist in the world today, but it is interesting that in misrepresenting Walter Martin and firing in ignorance from far away, Mouw hit a bluebird instead of a grackle—demonstrating for all to see the essence of “Shoot First” Apologetics. 

Jill Martin Rische received her Bachelor’s Degree in Old Testament Literature with an emphasis on the Hebrew language from Oral Roberts University. She is currently completing her Master’s degree in Humanities/History at California State University. Jill is Dr. Walter Martin’s eldest daughter and the author of the inspirational book, Through the Windows of Heaven, 100 Powerful Stories and Teachings from Walter Martin, the Original Bible Answer Man (Broadman & Holman, 1999) and Jack Star and the Secret Door (Kingdom, 2003) a youth fantasy adventure in the tradition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Kevin Rische and Jill Martin Rische are the Managing Editors on the 2003 edition of The Kingdom of the Cults (Bethany House) working with Dr. Ravi Zacharias as the General Editor. The Risches are also the founders of Walter Martin Ministries and the producers of the nationwide radio program Essential Christianity, featuring Dr. Walter Martin as "The Original Bible Answer Man".


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