Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Walter Martin

Walter Martin was one of the most distinctive Christian apologists of the twentieth century, but what exactly did he believe and what did he contribute to the apologetics enterprise? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of Walter Martin—and why he still matters today.

Who Was Walter Martin?

Walter Ralston Martin (1928–1989) was born in New York City and was one of six children. He was raised in Brooklyn and completed part of his graduate studies at New York University. Martin served as a Baptist minister and was influenced by evangelical scholars such as Frank E. Gaebelein, Wilbur Smith, J. Oliver Buswell, and Donald Grey Barnhouse. Because of his work as a Christian theologian and apologist, Martin is widely considered the father of the evangelical counter-cult movement. He founded and directed the Christian Research Institute, an apologetics organization given to the study of cults and new religious movements. He was the original creator and host of the Bible Answer Man radio program, a show dedicated to answering questions about the Bible and Christian apologetics. Martin hosted this popular program until his death in 1989.

What Did Walter Martin Write?

Among numerous books, Walter Martin’s most important apologetics-related work is The Kingdom of the Cults that was first published in 1965. The book examines and critiques American-based religious groups that stand outside of historic Christianity such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many others. Martin’s work has been considered the authoritative reference work on providing a Christian evaluation of American religious cults and is one of the best-selling books ever in the field of counter-cult apologetics.

CRASH COURSE- WALTER MARTIN

What Did Walter Martin Believe?

As an evangelical Protestant (Baptist), Walter Martin affirmed the doctrinal orthodoxy of historic Christianity. He rigorously defended Christian orthodox doctrine in the following ways:

  1. Martin defended the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity (one God in three distinct persons) from the tritheistic (three gods) doctrine of the Mormons and the modalistic (one divine god who changes identities) doctrine of the United Pentecostal Church (known as Jesus Only).
  2. Martin defended the historic Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ from the Arian-like Christologies (Christ was a creature) of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians.
  3. Martin defended the biblical doctrine that salvation is a gift of God’s grace solely apart from human works (Ephesians 2:8–10; Titus 3:4–7) that is unfortunately denied by virtually all the heretical sects or religious cults.

Why Does Walter Martin Matter Today?

Walter Martin was criticized by some evangelicals for not calling the Roman Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist churches cults. However, Martin believed that traditional Catholics and Adventists affirm most of what the cults deny doctrinally (such as Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other elements of historic Christianity). Yet it should be noted that Martin was clearly critical of a number of doctrines taught by the Catholic and Adventist churches.

Evangelical Christians today can learn a lot from reading the apologetics writings of Walter Martin. Virtually every evangelical Christian has had a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness knock on their door and has heard members of these religions deny essential elements of historic Christianity. Martin’s writings will help equip the average Christian to share their faith effectively with these popular religionists who spread a different gospel.

Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards; Søren Kierkegaard; St. Bonaventure; Martin Luther; John Calvin; Irenaeus; Tertullian; St. Basil; St. Jerome; Justin Martyr

Reflections: Your Turn
Do you ever share your faith with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons who knock on your door? Why don’t more Christians witness to these groups?

Resources

  One thought on “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Walter Martin

  1. November 29, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Reblogged this on BELLATOR CHRISTI and commented:
    Interesting article by RTB’s Kenneth Samples on 20th century apologist Walter Martin. It’s an interesting read. Check it out!

    • November 29, 2016 at 11:29 am

      Pastor Brian:

      Thanks for the reblog.

      Best regards in Christ.

      Ken Samples

  2. December 3, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks for this. Dr. Martin was extraordinary.

    You should add John Montgomery to the queue for a blog like this. He and Walter Martin were very close friends.

    • December 3, 2016 at 9:26 pm

      Thanks, Kurt.

      Yes, I used to attend Dr. Montgomery’s lectures at Simon Greenleaf.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

  3. December 4, 2016 at 6:42 pm

    I have benefited greatly from Walter Martin’s work in my own research and engagement with various non-Christian groups. I would say that his life and work can serve both as inspiration and warning. It is an inspiration in that he constantly strove to bring people to Christ–an apologetic giant who stressed the reasonableness of Christianity and going to Scripture over and over again.It is also a warning in that, I think, he allowed his counter-cult ministry to color a few aspects of his theology.

    Most specifically and noticeably, his denial of the eternal generation of the Son, which has been the teaching on the differentiation of persons in the Trinity for the Christian church since Nicaea. I’m not at all calling him a heretic and would not want to be construed as such. What I am saying is that his denial of eternal generation seems to have been grounded in his well-founded fears that certain unorthodox groups would use it to try to deny the Trinity, as he explicitly links this fear in his discussion of the Nicene Creed in his section on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kingdom of the Cults. So I think it is important, as always, to read any theologian with careful discernment and be aware that even those giants upon whose shoulders we stand can and do get things wrong.

    Thanks for yet another interesting entry in this series.

    • December 4, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      Hello, JW.

      I talked with Walter about the eternal generation issue. He would refer to the preincarnate Christ as the eternal Word but not the eternal Son. Yet he never thought Christ was in any way inferior to the Father in terms of his divinity. I think he was influenced by J. Oliver Buswell on this issue. In his mind he preferred to use the language of Scripture but was apprehensive about the creedal language of eternal generation and how cults might misuse it.

      I tried to persuade him of the position of eternal generation but he unfortunately disagreed. But even with that important doctrinal difference he was a tenacious defender of historic Christian theology and thus rejected the standard Christological and Trinitarian heresies of church history. I think it is possible that the current debate over the Trinity makes this issue more relevant and critical in our eyes and maybe rightly so.

      I think he arguably did more than any other apologist to promote counter-cult apologetics. I’m not sure I would have chosen an apologetics focus without his influence on me.

      Best regards.

      Ken Samples

      • December 5, 2016 at 11:04 am

        Yes, I think that he was vastly influential and important as a leader in witnessing to those groups that are close to Christianity, while yet remaining quite far from it. I agree that some of the current debate may impact how I and others view his specific position on eternal generation, though I remember reading it and being concerned by it about 8 years ago. Of course, the debate over eternal generation in evangelicalism has been going on, off and on, for about 40 years, so 8 years is hardly putting me before the ‘current’ debate unless you meant the much more recent controversy within specific circles that has broken out in the last 6 months or so.

        Anyway, I’m not going to say it’s not important, because it is, but I thought it was worth noting that aspect of his thought as well. More importantly, I think that, like I said before, it shows how we can often get caught up in our own concerns so much that we may unduly apply those concerns to other aspects of our worldview. For Martin, a very valid concern about Arianism led to a downplaying of a doctrine which was historically developed exactly to counter Arianism. It shows that we can all have blind spots–and I’m sure I do.

      • December 5, 2016 at 4:54 pm

        JW:

        Greetings again.

        Having talked with Walter many times and having worked closely with him at CRI through the years I can say he was clearly concerned that the idea of eternal generation could be used by Arian groups to question the Son’s full deity. However, I don’t think that was his initial or central concern about the eternal generation of the Son doctrine. As I see it, he was a Baptist with limited but nonetheless respectful views of the ecumenical creeds of Christendom. However, he held strongly that doctrine must be drawn directly or principally from Scripture. Because of this he was rather uneasy about the father’s formulation of eternal generation. I think he thought that eternal generation may have reflected aspects of Greek philosophy that weren’t easy to square with Scripture. I think something similar is reflected in other evangelical theologians who question eternal generation such as John MacArthur and Wayne Grudem. Though I heard recently through a friend that Grudem now affirms the eternal generation of the Son.

        Nevertheless, I think many evangelicals could benefit from developing a greater appreciation of the creeds and councils and how the early church formulated their theology. In a sense, I’m hoping this Christian Thinkers 101 series will in a modest way help my evangelical brothers and sisters to be more familiar with church history and its many thinkers.

        I think it is fair to say that we are all vulnerable to blind spots. I’m hoping that reading broadly in Christendom’s various schools of theology will help limit them.

        Certainly my time of studying under Walter Martin helped me to grow in the faith and I remember him fondly.

        Best regards.

        Ken Samples

      • December 5, 2016 at 5:18 pm

        Ken,
        Thanks for your kind tone and responses. I think we’re in agreement here. Martin is well worth studying and his insights into so many non-Christian groups are incredibly valuable. Thanks for this continuing series!

  4. Rita Gorski
    December 12, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    I’m late in noticing this article about Walter Martin. Just a quick response about him – I appreciated his teaching, but disagreed with one of his followers that tried to do damage to charismatic Christian churches.
    As for engaging with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons – yes I invited both a time or two into my home and we had interesting conversations. They would present their point of view and I would present mine. We were respectful of one another and my aim was to have them see a different way of looking at particular scriptures, and they, of course, had hoped to influence me to theirs. I’m not sure if I succeeded but I had hoped to plant some seeds.

    • December 12, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      Hello, Rita.

      Thank you for your comments.

      I like your approach to discussing doctrine with JW and LDS. Your efforts are not in vain.

      Merry Christmas!

      Ken Samples

  5. January 3, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    Dear Ken,
    Many thanks for the series. What about a study on Menno Simons and the Radical Reformation contribution in Church history?
    Supporting RTB since its beginning. Great ministry. Thank God for Walter Martin.
    Kind regards in Christ.

    • January 16, 2017 at 11:13 am

      Ron:

      Greetings.

      Thanks for the good suggestion. My series needs more representatives from that side of the Reformation.

      Thank you so much for your support of RTB.

      Happy New Year!

      Ken Samples

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