I’ve been woefully slack in documenting the books I’ve read over the past couple months. I most recently finished Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words, by Rod Bennett.
Bennett begins with a common sense point. These days everyone from the Seventh-Day Adventists to the Later-Day Saints to the Calvinists to the Jehavah’s Witnesses claims that their doctrine is a restoration of what the early Church actually taught and practiced, because the early Church had received it directly from Christ and the Apostles. Obviously not everyone who makes this claim can be right. So if we want to know who’s right, and what the earliest Christians actually believed, we ought to read what they actually wrote. Hence Bennett presents summaries of the life and writings of four witness from the first 150 years after Christ: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin the Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyon.
Personally I knew fairly little about early church history and the church fathers before reading this book. I’ve read the excellent two-volume The Story of Christianity by Dr. Justo Gonzalez, but with two thousand years of history to cover, it’s necessarily not that detailed. I’ve seen various early texts mentioned here and there, but I’ve only actually read a couple of the shorter ones.
Bennett’s book is a worthy introduction to the four individuals he presents. It gives a good summary of the struggles that confronted Christians during the first two centuries. On the one hand, they faced violent persecution from the Roman authorities. Traditional stories of Christian martyrs being fed to the lions in the Colisseum or burned alive are not myth but historical fact, backed up by copious evidence. On the other hand, the Church was also challenged by false prophets and heretical teachers: the Gnositcs, Docetists, and others. Against this backdrop, the four witnesses wrote and testified about the doctrine they had received from the Apostles–person-to-person, in some cases, and at least with minimal transmissions in other cases.
Bennett does write from a Catholic perspective, and he includes an afterward explaining how the testimony of these witnesses and others helped push him towards Rome. His personal belief in the Catholic Church is not intrusive, however, and should not stop Protestants and others from appreciating a good work from a strong amateur scholar.