Andrew Sullivan's cover story in the current issue of Newsweek: "Forget the Church. Follow Jesus."
From Europe and the Faith, by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953):
Let us take such a writer as Tertullian and set down what was certainly true of his time.
Tertullian was a man of about forty in the year 200. The Church then taught as an unbroken tradition that a Man who had been put to death about 170 years before in Palestine—only 130 years before Tertullian’s birth—had risen again on the third day. This Man was a known and real person with whom numbers had conversed. In Tertullian’s childhood men still lived who had met eye witnesses of the thing asserted….
This Man, Who also was God Himself, had, through chosen companions called Apostles, founded a strict and disciplined society called the Church….
There was certainly at the head of each Christian community a bishop: regarded as directly the successor of the Apostles, the chief agent of the ritual and the guardian of doctrine.
The whole increasing body of local communities kept in touch through their bishops, held one doctrine and practiced what was substantially one ritual.
All that is plain history….
Many of the points I have set down are, of course, demonstrably anterior to the third century. I mean by “demonstrably” anterior, proved in earlier documentary testimony. That ritual and doctrine firmly fixed are long anterior to the time in which you find them rooted is obvious to common sense. But there are documents as well.
Thus, we have Justin Martyr. He was no less than sixty years older than Tertullian. He was as near to the Crucifixion as my generation is to the Reform Bill—and he gave us a full description of the Mass.
We have the letters of St. Ignatius. He was a much older man than St. Justin—perhaps forty or fifty years older. He stood to the generations contemporary with Our Lord as I stand to the generation of Gladstone, Bismarck, and, early as he is, he testifies fully to the organization of the Church with its Bishops, the Eucharistic Doctrine, and the Primacy in it of the Roman See.
The literature remaining to us from the early first century and a half after the Crucifixion is very scanty….But what does remain is quite convincing. There arose from the date of Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven, from, say, A.D. 30 or so, before the death of Tiberius and a long lifetime after the Roman organization of Gaul, a definite, strictly ruled and highly individual Society, with fixed doctrines, special mysteries, and a strong discipline of its own. With a most vivid and distinct personality….And this Society was, and is, called “The Church.”