November 27, 2005

Four Witnesses, by Rod Bennett

Here's another book I read while looking into the history of the Early Church. I finished it over a year ago, and was moved to begin a long and detailed description of its contents. I was never moved to complete that review, alas, and now the details are too foggy, so a briefer summary will have to do. This is from memory, mind you, so I might not have all of the details perfectly correct.

Subtitled "The Early Church In Her Own Words", Bennett's book consists of excerpts from the writings of four of the early Church Fathers: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. Bennett surrounds each with material on the background and context of each excerpt, turning the whole into a complete, if narrowly focussed, look at the first two centuries of the Early Church, written from a standpoint of faith rather than skepticism.

The book is also about Bennett himself. Raised a Baptist, he'd been taught that there is a wide gap between the time of the Apostles and the later church, a gap about which we know very little and during which the church had gone wrong, necessitating the Reformation and its drive to return to the ways of the Early Church. Hence, the Reformation's rallying cry of Sola Scriptura! And yet, although Protestantism harkened back to the Early Church, none of his teachers seemed to know much about it.

Bennett determined to correct this, and went looking for what he could find. And what he found were these four authors whose lives form an unbroken chain from the time of the Apostles (Clement came to Rome in the days of St. Peter) through the end of the second century--four authors who neatly fill that pesky gap he'd always been told of. That was the first surprise.

The second surprise came when he read what these men had to say, and looked at the Early Church through their eyes. It did not, in fact, look anything like the Baptist church he'd grown up in; it did, in fact, look a great deal like Roman Catholicism. (Having grown up Catholic myself, I can vouch for this; Justin Martyr's description of Christian Sunday observance is recognizably the Mass I grew up with--even given that I grew up with the Post-Vatican II Mass and not the Latin Mass.) This was a turning point in Bennett's life, and he subsequently joined the Roman Catholic Church.

This is a popular work; if you're looking for a scholarly commentary, look elsewhere. At the same time, I found this to be quite a good introduction to Clement, Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus; and leafing through it again, it's clear that although he focusses on these four, it's evident that in preparation he covered the entire waterfront. I liked it; and it's a good complement to Chadwick's History of the Early Church.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 27, 2005 08:02 AM