FOUR WITNESSES: THE EARLY CHURCH IN HER OWN WORDS
by Rod Bennett Ignatius Press, 2002 343 pages, $16.95 To order: (800) 651-1531 or http://www.ignatius.com
While in Europe for the first time as an exchange student, I regularly attended a little parish church in Heidelberg that is older than the United States. The experience broadened my horizons and strengthened my sense of being a Catholic.
I can imagine, then, the effect that reading Christian writings from the first two centuries A.D. would have on a sola Scriptura evangelical Protestant who was brought up thinking that Church history starts with Martin Luther. In the introduction to Four Witnesses, Rod Bennett tells how he discovered the “Old World.”
“We have (contrary to popular belief) a very vivid picture of primitive Christianity,” he writes. “Poking around in a local Christian bookshop one rainy afternoon, I stumbled upon a set of books enTITLEd The Ante-Nicene Fathers [i.e. pre-Council of Nicea, A.D. 325]. … Within five minutes I knew that I had just dropped down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. … Right off the bat I encountered four eloquent witnesses squarely straddling this alleged gap between apostolic [33–68 A.D.] and post-apostolic Christianity.”
By immersing himself for a year in the works of Clement of Rome (pope at the turn of the second century), Ignatius of Antioch (bishop and martyr), Justin Martyr (the first Christian philosopher) and Irenaeus of Lyons (a French bishop from the Middle East), Bennett learned the full implications of his baptism. “And I suddenly realized, with a little trepidation, that I was actually going to have to start dealing with the early Church from now on … rather than just identifying myself with her.”
Bennett's intensive study of Scripture and patristics led him into the Catholic Church in 1996. He is convinced that more Protestants would jump at the chance, if only the post-New Testament Church were better-known. So he has made the works of four early Fathers of the Church accessible to the average American reader.
He is a terrific tour guide. He brings the writings of the four witnesses to life by presenting them together with detailed biographical and historical information. He gives the reader a ringside seat at the Coliseum on the day when Ignatius was thrown to the lions. We root for Justin when he writes to the “philosopher king,” the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, to explain the tenets of Christianity, even though we know that his Apology failed to end the fierce persecutions.
Against this background, Bennett sympathetically portrays the plight of the “first crop of cradle Christians” toward the end of the first century A.D.: “Their parents had accepted the Christian life for themselves, with eyes wide open. They, on the other hand, had been carried off into this wilderness without their consent. … They just wanted to belong a bit better.”
How on earth did the true faith survive such pressures? Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians demonstrates the authority of the pope of Rome to settle disputes, even in other churches. The letters that Ignatius wrote while traveling from his diocese to his execution testify clearly to a hierarchy composed of bishops, priests and deacons. Justin describes a liturgy that any Catholic today would recognize as the Mass.
By asking the essential questions and allowing the early Church to answer “in her own words,” Rod Bennett has compiled a tremendous work of Catholic apologetics. The book also happens to be as gripping and enjoyable as a good historical novel. I highly recommend this inexpensive, one-volume introduction to the Church's wealth of post-Scriptural Tradition.
Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania.