Book Review: Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words
Author: Rod Bennett
Publisher: Ignatius Press
History has always been a struggle for me. Don’t misunderstand me; I enjoy learning about history, and I love great storytellers, but somehow I have a hard time remembering history well. I get about 75% of the story, but I tend to forget or misunderstand about 25% of the facts. In some fashion, the details tend to get jumbled up in my aging brain, and referring to the book is necessary. I have a deep respect for the men in our local apologetics group that can rattle off Catholic history like they were present; it is truly a gift.
Every once in a while, an author comes along that makes history come alive. Rod Bennett is one of those authors. He can bring together historical facts and put them into a story that is not only entertaining but also informative. In this work: Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words, the author takes the reader on a historical journey covering the lives and actions of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. To be honest, I almost did not write a review of this work, and this review is late in coming, as I have let this book sit for a few months since finishing it. I did not leave the book sitting on the shelf for the past few months because it was boring, but just the opposite, I needed time to relay the facts presented in a concise way that gives justice to this book.
The stories conveyed have been swirling in my head for a while and have continued to impact my life positively since I finished reading this book. On the official Catholic Man Show technical read scale,*** I rate this book at an 9 as I found I needed extra time to read and re-read certain parts of the book in order to keep up with the story line. Don’t misunderstand me – the story line was not hard to follow; however, I needed more time to slow down and keep the facts and characters straight. The details in this story are important and add to the richness of this work.
The author has been diligent in this book, citing his references to keep the historical integrity of this work intact. The appendix spans 38 pages and is full of early and current church teaching, so if you like references, be sure to check out the very end of the book. As a bonus, the afterword provides insight into Mr. Bennett’s journey to Catholicism and highlights his personal struggles and realizations that brought him to the Catholic faith. His writing style is real and entertaining, with an underlying humility that creates an enjoyable reading experience.
It is difficult to narrow down my favorite parts of the book, but to be concise here goes:
- The Roman societal ills, which are not so different from ours, that Clement of Rome had to endure upon reaching college age around A.D. 50.
- Great quotes from the Didache which was written in approximately A.D. 60-70, which impress upon the Christian the importance of watchfulness (see TCMS episode #366 on Watchfulness)
- Excerpts from the Epistle that Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians in A.D. 96
- The harrowing, action-packed, and cruel Christian persecution that occurred in the Roman Coliseum
- The story of the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch as an encore to a day of Christian death in the Coliseum
- Philosophy brought Justin Martyr to Christ
- The apologetic writings of Justin Martyr which began in roughly A.D. 153-155
- The martyrdom of Justin Martyr and his defense of the faith
- Irenaeus of Lyons learning of the martyrdom of Polycarp and the details of Polycarp holding firm to not deny Christ before his death.
- How Irenaeus became Bishop of Lyons because he was in Italy during a two-week wave of Christian persecution in Lyons
- The written works of Irenaeus of Lyons
If you are interested in a deep dive into the beginnings of the Catholic church and enjoy apologetics, then I recommend this work. As I mentioned earlier, this work is full of history but also highlights the bravery of those who could not deny their Christian faith. Of course, professing their faith cost them their lives and their humble resolve is something to emulate. Perhaps it is best to close with a quote from the Didache to inspire us as we face our own challenges today: “Watch over your life; your lamps must not go out, nor your loins be ungirded; on the contrary, be ready.”
By: Kent Keithly, husband and father
***Regarding The Catholic Man Show technical read scale: A 3 out of 10 is a leisurely read that could be read in a couple of weeks, an 8 out of 10 is a more technical read which requires more time and often requires looking up definitions of words to clearly understand the author, and finally a 10/10 is an extremely technical read that requires a significant amount of time to complete the book, as well as, extra time to look up further explanations of the topic, definitions, and likely requires that some pages be read more than once to grasp the content.