Saturday, January 09, 2010

Book Review: The Four Witnesses

“It’s ALL Constantine’s fault!” The primitive Church of the first Christians was lost with the Donation of Constantine in 313 AD. -- So say many critics offering mutually exclusive and often improbable views of the early Church. But just what do we know about the early Church?

The Four WitnessesBook Review: Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words

Rod Bennett

Ignatius Press, 2002

“The early Church is no mystery.” Thus Rod Bennett begins his narrative through the first two hundred years of Church History.

The early Church is one of the most assessable parts of ancient history and Roman society. Recorded in the Anti and Post Nicene Fathers and a number of other works which are on line and even before the internet, the essential writings were available in reasonably priced books.

Bennet follows the story with the lives and writings of Four Witnesses, Clement of Rome, Ignatius 0f Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaus of of Lyon. woven into a easy to follow narrative. He tells the story of the Church discovering, once the Apostles had died; the heritage they left, how the Church was to exist as hostile society, worship, and deal with challenges inside and out. All four were in churches that faced major persecutions. Two of his witnesses were martyred and the other two may have been. The threat of a persecution was always with them. But it is also of people who grew in the love and service of the Lord. The issues they faced were remarkably similar to today’s issues as are proposed solutions.

When I first read the Fathers of the Church I found them reinforcing what I had learned about the Catholic faith from more modern sources. Bennet had a rather different experience. As an Evangelical he had been raised with a different understanding of Church History but also with the Evangical idea that the early Church should be the model for the modern Church. When he discovered the Church fathers he dug in to them so he could learn about the early Church and Jesus from those who were much closer to him in time. As he read he discovered that the Early Church was not modern Evangelicalism it was Catholic. Since his Witnesses were writing a hundred to two hundred years before Constantine the “blame it on Constantine” line did not work. His story of working through this is a compelling story in itself.

This book is intended for those just learning about the early Church, but can hold the interest of those well read on the subject. He provides a good introduction of the Early Church, it’s faith, and also a glimpse of the Roman Empire not normally seen in the usual Roman histories. And no Constantine.

Frank Capra: It‘s a Wonderful Life Bennett’s review of the work of Frank Capra.

Perpetua and Felicity - Martyrs
They were martyred in Carthage shortly after this period


Jeff Wills said...

"The issues they faced were remarkably similar to today’s issues as are proposed solutions."

What are some examples?

hank_F_M said...


Ireneus of Lyon, a student of Polycarp in Asia minor who was a progege of the Apostle John, writing in the last half of the second century, five volumes of “Against Heresies.” He is defending the faith agaist Gnostics of all sorts which if you changed the names to protect the guilty his description sounds like an index of New Age cult and practice. Today many authors are claiming that various Gnostic writings (I.E. the Gospel of Thomas) should be given equal status with the four canonical Gospels. He makes a solid and ringing support that there are four and only four Gospels , Matthew Mark Luke and John. This is about 160 AD which pretty much eliminates any thing else on chronology alone.

Jeff Wills said...

I think the Gnostic Gospels do pose a unique problem for the church. Elaine Pagels's book The Gnostic Gospels really hit me hard. She does a great job putting the situation into perspective. I think, in another book, she even argues, rather well actually, that Paul was possibly a Gnostic. Intersting argument rather we agree with her or not. I do think, however, that it's fair game to question the original conditions under which the Bible was cannonized. Certainly politics appears to have played a part--as it does in most everything.

hank_F_M said...


Remember Politics is “How people govern themselves.” which is neutral not pejorative. Of course understanding the cannon is a very important item in how the early Church governed itself.

The rule was 1) can it be traced to the Apostles and 2) was it read as scripture in the Churches, especially the Churches of Apostolic origin, everywhere since the beginning. The Councils that settled the cannon were more ratifying a centuries old established practice than imposing a decision. Since the Gnostic writings, which have a very different world view, came out of a parallel group of Churches of known newer establishment they would not meet the requirement. The early Christians, who had come out of a very Jewish background, had strong sense of defending the tradition (teaching) that had been received from the Apostles, and were very vocal about it.. Augustine tell of one of his friends who introduced Jerome’s new Latin translation and had a mutiny in his congregation over a minor word change in the book of Jonah. Trying to introduce the Gnostic writings would have been a riot - literally. If some Bishops tried to do the same excruciations would have flown left and right.

Gnosticism was very syncretic philosophy of Persian origin whose supporters tried with varying success to adapt into every religion in the Middle East. While they had overlapping interests with the early Christians, and evangelized the same groups of society, and had defections to each other -- like oil and water they did not mix. There were some places that did introduce a Gnostic approach and some more were established, it create a protest.

Elaine Pagels makes a very good case the Gnostics, but she does not, in my opinion do justice to the larger picture..

Jeff Wills said...

Interesting. You make some good points. I'm not up on the matter good enough to debate with some one as versed as you, but I can say the Gospel of John sounds pretty Gnostic, at times, to me.

chestertonrules said...


That the "Word became flesh" is a direct refutation of gnosticism. In fact, many historians believe that portions of John were written as a rebuttal to gnostic heresies.

One other example:

John 6
53Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.

hank_F_M said...


Welcome! Feel free to poke around.

Good points.

It is the differences that make the distinction not the similarities.

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