For Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religions, a great apostasy is the claim upon which their entire historical credibility rests. They believe they are restorers; not reformers. Thus either a great apostasy really happened (leaving the true Church founded by Christ totally distinguished), or the validity of every religion that attests to a great apostasy crumbles. Either the Catholic Church is the true Church founded by Christ — or it is a caricature of the true Church before it.
Now with the recent publication of The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story Of The Unbreakable Early Church from Catholic Answers Press, Rod Bennett has added to the mountain of conclusive evidence that no such apostasy occurred; and he’s done it in a unique way. This book comes from a special place because, for Bennett, this idea of a great apostasy was a heavy historical claim he too had to investigate and disband during his own journey to Catholicism.
In his most recent book Bennett combines his erudition with his gift for story-telling. When I first started reading The Apostasy That Wasn’t I thought to myself, “I’ve never read anything like this before!” Sure I had read plenty of scripts and excerpts from the early Church but never in this highly engaging, narrative form. But the book is not just story; it is an education. Bennett’s informed commentary, lively narration, and rich citations from the early Church writings makes this book a lively comprehensive lesson on what really happened in the early Church before, during and after the reign of Constantine—and how the remnants of Arianism have had fallout effects even into modern times. It’s not just a historically-enriching read; it’s a fun read.
Bennett begins by illustrating a picture of pre-Constantine Rome; and right off the bat he begins to dispel popular myths. “The idea that Christians lacked all power or political sway prior to the rise of Constantine…is one of the silliest aspects of the popular apostasy myth” (p. 38). Neither was Constantine the first emperor to be sympathetic to Christianity.
Prior to the tyranny of Dioclesian at the beginning of the 4th century Rome was a “libertarian’s paradise” and an “experiment in multiculturalism.” The Christians were a minority; but they were well-known and were largely left alone. But as the Church became increasingly affected by the secular, libertarian culture within which it existed, it was time for a critical move—to the desert.
There in the desert and out of the piercingly secular culture, a man named Antony and his followers continued to live in prayer and community; and it was there that they maintained the Christian faith in its apostolic purity.
There is good evidence that from Antony and his ascetic community in the Egyptian desert came St. Athanasius; and it was Athanasius who in the face of Arianism—that virulent and destructive heresy that denies Jesus’ divinity—stepped up to fight heroically for the sake of orthodoxy. It was through the ferocious intellect of St. Athanasius, and his uncompromising sanctity, that the indestructible Catholic Church overcame the far-reaching threat of heresy. Bennett makes you feel like you’re right there at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, and amid the discussions and debates that arise through the course of the narrative; and he makes you fall in deep admiration for the great defender named Athanasius.
This book left me wondering, “Why don’t Christians talk about Athanasius more?” Except for the more eager academics and intellectually-inclined, his name is largely unknown and unspoken of. Yet as Bennett makes clear in The Apostasy That Wasn’t, St. Athanasius was a major figure in the early Church and deserves his own specials honors. For as Thomas reconciled reason with religion, and Francis reconciled religion with nature, Athanasius before them reconciled Christendom with orthodoxy. When it seemed that all of Christianity was going to hell in a handbasket, it was through the obedient son of God Athanasius, that the apostolic faith and the indestructible Body of Christ maintained its integrity. Bennett reminds us of this with bells and whistles.
The great historian and founder of Christendom College, Warren Carroll, demonstrated a great gift for doing history in an academically rigorous but shockingly readable way. Now Rod Bennett, who is also the author of Four Witnesses: The Early Church In Her Own Words (a sort of prequel to The Apostasy That Wasn’t) is proving to be blessed with that same gift: to be able to teach history honestly and respectably, with erudition and enthusiasm, and with a knack for drawing the reader into the story; for history is in essence a story before it is anything else. History being taught as a story is history being taught right; and Bennett does just this.
I’ll be adding The Apostasy That Wasn’t to my “Read Over & Over Again” book pile. Highly recommended!