I have been meaning for several years now to delve into the writings of the early church fathers -- those Christian pastors from the first few centuries after Christ, some of whom learned the Christian faith directly from one or more of Jesus's apostles. However, I have been somewhat daunted by most of the existing collections of the early church fathers, in that the their writings can often make for slow reading, and that many of the existing collections are quite large. But I found "Four Witnesses" by Rod Bennett to be a terrific introduction to these writings.
As its name implies, "Four Witnesses" focuses mainly on the lives and writings of four particular church fathers, all of whom lived prior to 200 A.D.: Clement, the fourth bishop of Rome; Ignatius, bishop of Antioch who was martyred in Rome in the early second century; Justin Martyr, a Christian philosopher who was one of the first apologists for the Christian faith; and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern France) who wrote extensively in refutation of Gnosticism. Bennett blends his own narrative text with numerous excerpts from the writings of these four men (plus excerpts from some other patristic writings) to tell a story of the Christian church throughout much of its first two centuries of existence. Central to this story are the persecutions which were ordered by various Roman emperors, and the constant struggle against other competing quasi-Christian belief systems. By quoting these "four witnesses" extensively, Bennett allows us to see first-hand what these early Christians believed, the challenges they faced, and how they responded to those challenges. The result is something that is difficult to achieve: a historical account that is compelling and interesting to read, while still containing numerous lengthy quotes from primary sources.
There are some places in the narrative text where Bennett takes artistic license, such as when he gives a detailed account of Irenaeus receiving the news of Polycarp's martyrdom, even though such details have been lost to history. However, such instances involve only minor details. Bennett has done extensive research with the goal of portraying all of the major events in his narrative as accurately as possible. In fact, I heard a radio interview with the author in which he said that he spent an entire year doing little else besides reading the writings of the early church fathers, and that "Four Witnesses" tells the story that gradually coalesced in his mind as he read more and more of these eyewitness accounts of the early church.
"Four Witnesses" also contains an afterword which consists of an abbreviated account of the author's conversion from Protestant Christianity to Catholic Christianity, which came as a result of his research into the early church fathers. The book also has an appendix which gives additional quotes from the church fathers in support of various Catholic beliefs, in order to demonstrate that these beliefs date back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Though I agree with the points that Bennett makes in these additional sections, I almost wish that he had left them out, because I am afraid that they could turn off some non-Catholic Christians who otherwise might find this book both enjoyable and informative. However, these sections do contain some valuable information, and the reader is free to skip them, so it is a tough call.
In conclusion, I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for an entertaining and readable introduction to the writings of the early church fathers.