When I first saw this book, I wondered how it was different from Rod Bennett’s The Apostasy That Wasn’t. Both dealt with the early Church and what she believed. But the similarities really end there, another testimony to the need for a variety of apologetic works that cover the same kind of ideas but in completely different ways.
Clear and Accessible Teaching
Papandrea has a clear writing style and he lays out the importance of the Church Fathers in understanding the beliefs in the early Church.
Then the book is divided into chapters where he discusses a doctrine–say, the Eucharist–and after laying out the biblical, traditional, and historical case for that teaching, he follows up with a vignette of one of the Church Fathers.
So while we are learning the powerful Catholic arguments for the sacraments, Scripture and Tradition, the Communion of saints, and the papacy, we are also getting illuminating background on St. Clement (one of the first popes), Sts. Augustine and Ambrose, Pope St. Leo the Great and even more controversial figures like Novatian.
Along the way, Papandrea unearthed the most compelling quotes from the early Fathers, including from Sts. Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian.
The reader is treated to a survey of the early Church for the first few hundred years and what she taught and why. It is all thoroughly Catholic of course, one of the primary motivators for me to enter full communion with the Church from Protestantism. Reading the Church Fathers at any depth convinces you that the Catholic Church has a much more plausible claim to be true than does any form of Protestantism.
Papandrea is matter of fact in his delivery. No polemics or vitriol toward non-Catholics, just straight facts and evidence from history and what the most fitting answer is to them: The Catholic Church.
Pick up Handed Down today and grow in your understanding of the early Church and appreciation of Catholicism!
It’s a great opportunity to evangelize a friend to help demolish obstacles they have to believing in God and specifically becoming Catholic. Most of the converts had a heavy intellectual component to their conversions, so the documentary is more about plausibility, evidence, logic, and arguments over feelings.
You Convinced Me
It includes atheists with Ph.Ds, Protestant pastors who gave up everything to become Catholic (and saw their economic life ruined), and people like me who were cynics and skeptics.
It’s subtitle is equally trenchant: “The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Church.” Let’s dig into this excellent new book.
Didn’t the Early Church Apostatize?
Bennett begins by telling the story of his first visit in the 1980s to a curious little Protestant place called the Fields of the Wood in western North Carolina.
At that place, so the story went at the time, a man received a special vision from God to restore the true Church, which had fallen into apostasy over 1,600 years prior.
It should, because this is a common refrain, sung with diverse variations, of several strains of Evangelical Protestant, fundamentalist Protestant, Mormon, and other groups.
But this visit marked the start of a journey for Bennett, one that would ultimately lead him to the Catholic Church.
History Comes Alive
This book isn’t primarily about Bennett and his conversion story though. While that itself is interesting, where Bennett shines, and what the book recounts, is the history of the early Church in the 300s where it saw the Edict of Milan from Constantine, allowing Christianity to be practiced, the rise of the Arian heresy, and the heroic defense of orthodoxy from the Christians of the time, most prominently St. Athanasius.
Bennett showed his deft touch for writing narrative-style history in The Four Witnesses, a book that makes the time period of the late first and second centuries comes alive through the eyes of Sts. Clement, Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus.
This is nothing like reading a history text book.
Instead, it is like reading a compelling story, a page turner of the first order.
The only author I’ve read that rivals Bennett’s skill in this area is the late Dr. Warren Carroll. Bennett’s book actually takes a century-long slice of history from Carroll’s The Building of Christendom and magnifies the events, personalities, and conflict in much greater detail.
We learn of Antony of the Desert and his probable protege, Athanasius. We read about the rise of Arius and the heresy that he promulgated with diabolical success. We read of conniving bishops and orthodox bishops and popes who countered them. We read of the first great Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in AD 325 and how it only marked the beginning of the fight against Arianism, a fight that almost tore the Church and the Empire apart.
A Perilous Orthodoxy
Orthodoxy, we discover in Bennett’s book, isn’t a boring set of rules, carefully laid out for us ahead of time by God. Rather, as Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy:
People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.
It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.
The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. . . .
(Is it any wonder that Chesterton became Catholic?)
Bennett exactly demonstrates just how fast and fierce the Church careened forward in those first centuries. Assailed by heresies from all sides–and from within–she swerved and dodged with supernatural celerity and came through with doctrine untarnished.
By the end of the book, Bennett returns to the Fields of the Wood, to find a toned down, more modern vanilla flavor of Protestantism than was there in the 80s. Almost forgotten was the Protestant founder and his Joseph Smith-like claim to being the vehicle through which the true Church was restored. Likewise gone are the claims that their particular group of Christians was the “true Church” in any sort of exclusive sense.
The Apostasy Bubble Permanently Burst
What Bennett has done, with aplomb and erudition, is burst the Apostasy narrative’s bubble once and for all. Protestants of all stripes believe that this apostasy happened, sometime in the early Church, even if they won’t put a date on it and won’t call it an outright apostasy.
Corruption “crept in,” so the story goes, and the Church eventually lost its way. Sure, they may have been some Christians here and there who were still following “biblical truth,” but most were tainted in unredeemable ways.
The Church almost fell into apostasy, it is true. Arianism almost swallowed her whole. But God disallowed it, and He did so in a way that can only be called miraculous.
No, the apostasy never happened. Because God promised that He would lead His Church into all truth (John 16:13). And the Bible calls the Church, the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The gates of hell did not prevail against it.
So the next time a Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or fervent Evangelical Protestant comes to your door, invite them to read Bennett’s book together and discuss it. They may very well find themselves being the ones who get converted…to Catholicism!