What Was It Like to Be an Early Christian?

Book Picks: Learn Church History From the Beginning

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Looking to learn more about the birth of the Church?

The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church, by Catholic convert Rod Bennett (Catholic Answers, 2015), is an attempt to convince non-Catholic Christians that there was no apostasy from the true, original faith of the early Church as received from Christ. In doing so, Bennett establishes the authority of the sacred Tradition in addition to Scripture and the sacraments, especially the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Many Protestants, particularly those who jettisoned the hierarchy, apostolic succession, most of the sacraments and all of the “bells and smells,” justified throwing overboard much of the Catholic Church’s belief and practice at the time of the Protestant Reformation or afterward, citing theories about when and why the early Church went astray from true Christianity.

According to the most common version of this theory, the Great Apostasy — when the Church strayed from the original purity of its beliefs — occurred once the Roman Empire’s toleration of Christianity (and, in this view, corruption and co-option of the Church) occurred. Thus the need for a new reformer/prophet, according not only to many Protestants, but also to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and even Muslims.

However, Bennett marshals the evidence that they are wrong (bolstering Blessed John Henry Newman’s famous statement, “To be deep in history is to be cease to be Protestant”). He demonstrates the existence of a hierarchy devoted from the very beginning to teaching and maintaining what Jesus had handed on to them, administering the sacraments and accepting the headship and special teaching authority of the successor of Peter. He also presents samples from Christianity’s earliest decades of devotion to the saints and to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This book not only provides answers to those challenged by Protestant friends or proselytizers, but it offers a fascinating window on the early Church. The book is perfect for history-conscious Protestants looking for a friendly defense of Catholic faith and for Catholics seeking to deepen their connection with their forefathers in the faith. I highly recommend it.

Meanwhile, Handed Down: The Catholic Faith of the Early Christians (Catholic Answers, 2015), written by James Papandrea, a former Protestant minister who is now Catholic, offers historical explanations that answered many of his own questions about the Church. This book dovetails beautifully with The Apostasy That Wasn’t, going even deeper, offering vivid moments that show the continuity of the Church in those early centuries. For example, the early Christians believed not only in the authority of Scripture but also in the authority of the Church and sacred Tradition. The early Church’s faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in the importance of works and free will in their theology of salvation were all key.

Both of these books will be particularly useful as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. The year leading up to that anniversary has been dedicated, as we know, as a special Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis.

What a wonderful opportunity to add prayer for unity and well-informed, good-natured discussion of our faith to other works of mercy.

Not to be forgotten in carrying out the seven corporal works of mercy (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, etc.), we are also tasked with the seven spiritual works of mercy, which include instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful and being patient with those in error. In that context, we should see the greatest mercy of all is to pray for our Protestant friends and help them to see the importance of the unity that is only to be found in the Catholic Church founded by Jesus himself. What a wonderful homecoming that would be after 500 years away!

I highly recommend both these books, not only for Protestants who may be ignorant of the facts and arguments presented in them, but also for family members who may have fallen away from the Church or may lack the foundation to defend the truth when questioned or challenged.

Perhaps we are living in a historic moment, in which this Year of Mercy may play a vital role in achieving ecumenical union with our Christian brethren. The dream of Christian unity could end up being realized with startling swiftness: It could truly be a reality during the lifetime of many readers of these two books.


Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian.