Have you ever seen the movie Patton? Actor George C. Scott won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his amazing portrayal of the bold, opinionated, and flamboyant General George Patton. General Patton was not only a great battlefield tank commander for the US Army during World War II, but he was also arguably one of the most politically incorrect persons of the twentieth century. Patton wasn’t afraid to speak his mind on virtually any issue, regardless of the consequences. (We’ll make an apologetics connection about this personality trait shortly.) However, just how realistic Scott’s movie portrayal was has been a topic of historical debate.
A powerful contrast to Patton’s dominant personality is shown in the demeanor of General Omar Bradley, played in the film by Karl Malden. Bradley is highly competent but quiet and modest, and he readily deflects compliments by attributing praise to the US combat soldiers who fight daily on the front line. In real life, Omar Bradley was known as the “GI’s General” for his respect and affection for the common enlisted soldier. My father—who fought in a US infantry division in the European theater during World War II—always spoke highly of General Bradley.
It seems that many, if not most, people prefer the bold, aggressive, and hard-charging US generals to their more humble, quiet, and deferential counterparts. I guess that is why there have been movies made about George Custer, Douglas MacArthur, and George Patton, but far fewer about generals like Maxwell Taylor, Alexander Patch, and Omar Bradley.
Personalities and Demeanors of Christian Apologists
When it comes to the demeanors of Christian apologists, again, I think many Christians prefer and even admire the hard-charging or aggressive personality types. Here I’m thinking of people like Walter Martin, Ronald Nash, and Greg Bahnsen. (I knew all three of these men, and while they were often more like Patton than Bradley when in the apologetics arena of debate, nevertheless, they were all men of scholarship, grace, and humility.) However, the more winsome types also garner quite a following, but for entirely different reasons—here I’m thinking of people like Ravi Zacharias, Alvin Plantinga, and Hugh Ross. These men strike me temperamentally as more like Bradley than Patton, but make no mistake—just like Bradley, they exhibit a reserved strength and toughness.
My first teacher in the historic Christian faith was Walter Martin, the founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” I attended Martin’s Bible class for many years and listened to dozens of his debates and teaching tapes. I then had the good fortune of working for and with him at CRI for a few years. Martin was seemingly fearless in defending the faith and amazingly articulate and inspirational in speech and debate.
Sometime after Martin’s unfortunate death, I thought to myself that I should model my apologetics style after his. I would be a bold, daring, and provocative Christian apologist like him. Soon after, I distinctly remember a lady telling me, after hearing one of my nuanced (a.k.a. wimpy) remarks, “You’re no Walter Martin!” Though at the time I didn’t appreciate the comment, in retrospect, I discovered she was right. I am no Walter Martin. I neither have his personality nor his unique skill set. I needed to learn to be myself and use the personality and gifts God had given me. When I recognized this, I began experiencing greater personal fulfillment in my apologetics-related work. I also saw how God could use my distinct personality and demeanor for his sovereign purposes.
Just as both Patton and Bradley were needed to win the war against Nazi tyranny, so Christ’s church needs Christian apologists of various temperaments and personality types. Yet, as the apostles Paul and Peter tell us, all Christian apologists must strive to defend the faith with strength and boldness (2 Corinthians 10:4–5), but guided by gentleness, respect, and the keeping of a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:15–16).
Reflections: Your Turn
To reference old school movies and TV, which might you resonate more with: the personality of the fictional detective Dirty Harry, or the personality of Columbo?