An Introduction to Christian Theology



An Introduction to Christian Theology Thoughtful, constructive interreligious dialogue depends not only upon the openness of the dialogue partners to diverse perspectives, but also upon a reliable foundation of correct information about the various beliefs being discussed. For those who desire a basic understanding of the tenets of Christian faith, this paper offers a brief history of Christianity and summarizes the central Christian beliefs in God, Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Bible and authority, sin and reconciliation, sacraments, spiritual practices, and ethical living.

INTRODUCTION This paper provides a primer on the basics of

remain in the background of how Christianity is

Christian theology as it is understood in the

perceived and practiced in the United States;

American context. It explains the major beliefs or

frequently, these details may not even be familiar

doctrines that are generally accepted by all

to American Christians themselves. Nevertheless,

Christians while also highlighting the theological

some knowledge of these particulars is essential

diversity of the Christian churches. In other words,


although all Christians adhere to the doctrines







discussed here, various groups of Christians often interpret











disagreements usually have historical roots; thus,

complement to the other papers in the Boisi



Center series. In particular, since religious beliefs

inseparable from its doctrinal development. For

and religious practices always inform one another,

this reason, the paper gives an overview of

reading this paper together with the paper on



Religious Practice in the United States is

moving into a discussion of the major Christian

recommended. The paper begins with a brief


historical outline of the beginnings and major





divisions of Christianity. It then summarizes the As would be the case with any religious tradition,

Christian beliefs in God, Jesus Christ, the Trinity,

the complexity of Christian theology and history

the Bible and authority, sin and reconciliation,

cannot be explained fully in a brief paper. Many

sacraments, spiritual practices, and ethical living.

nuances of Christian theology and history tend to

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY The history of Christianity unfolds organically

resurrection saved them from their sins. As their

through time. It is commonly understood to begin

conviction grew, they named Jesus the “Christ”—

with Jesus, who was born two thousand years ago.

meaning Messiah or Anointed One—according to

However, because Jesus was Jewish, some date

the prophecies of the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew

Christianity’s roots much further back, to the

Scriptures (commonly known among Christians

beginnings of Judaism. To illustrate the vast

as the Old Testament). This is the origin of the

sweep of historical development, this section

name “Jesus Christ” and led to Jesus’ followers

proceeds in four parts. First, it addresses the roots

being called “Christians.”

of Christianity in the first through the third centuries C.E. (“Common Era,” dating from the

After Jesus’ death, “Christians” became identified


it describes

as a particular sect within Judaism. These Jews

Christianity’s development through the Middle

believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in



their Hebrew Scriptures, whose coming they had

Reformations in the 1600s and their continuing

long anticipated. However, as time went on, the

influence today; fourth, focusing on the United

majority of Jews did not believe that Jesus was the

States, it summarizes several aspects of American

Messiah, and their differences with “Christian”


Jews increased. Further, many non-Jewish people


Jesus’ birth); second,





did come to believe in Jesus. In this way, “Christianity” gradually became

The Beginnings of Christianity (1-300 C.E.)



movement distinct from Judaism, as it is practiced Christianity began

as a




Judaism during the first century C.E. At this time, the Jewish rabbi now known as Jesus of Nazareth

Over several generations, Christians compiled

undertook a public teaching ministry in which he

their collective memories of Jesus’ teachings and

preached about the imminent coming of the

sayings in various documents. Best known among

Kingdom of God. As reported in the Christian

these today are the four narratives of Jesus’ life,

Scriptures (commonly known among Christians

death, and resurrection that now appear in the

as the New Testament), Jesus assembled a core

Christian Scriptures, the “Gospels” of Matthew,

group of twelve Jewish disciples, along with many

Mark, Luke, and John. During these early years,

other followers. Together they ministered to the


poor and outcast in present-day Israel and

Christian communities about their belief in Jesus

Palestine. Around the year 33 C.E., Jesus was

as the Messiah and the way Christians should live

arrested and executed by the Roman governor.

and worship. The letters of the apostle Paul and a

However, Jesus’ followers claimed that he rose

few other authors were eventually included in the

from the dead; they came to believe that he was

Christian Scriptures along with the four Gospels.

the Son of God and that his death and

Christians debated for centuries over which 2






documents to include in their scriptures; the first

unification in the fourth century under the reign

known list of the twenty-seven documents now

of Emperor Theodosius and through the theology

accepted as the Christian Scriptures did not

of Bishop Augustine of Hippo (b. 356-d. 430).

appear until the year 367 CE, and it may have

Almost seventy years after Constantine legalized

taken even longer before Christians universally


accepted this list.

Christian faith as the official religion of the




Roman Empire. From then on, Christianity spread rapidly. Some converted to Christianity to

Further Development (300-1500 C.E.)

advance in Roman society or out of fear of Roman Since their religious practices were distinguished

authorities, but many converted willingly. These

from Judaism only gradually, Christians of the

conversions catapulted Christianity forward as a

first and second centuries worshipped in small

leading religion of the Roman Empire, which

pockets throughout the Middle and Near East, and

then encompassed most of Europe and North

their religious practices differed from town to


town. Moreover, Christianity was often outlawed were

Shortly after Theodosius’ decree, Augustine

persecuted and executed for professing their faith.

became bishop of Hippo in North Africa. An adult

In the year 313 C.E., the Roman emperor

convert to Christianity, Augustine came to be one



of the most influential theologians in the history

legalized it, virtually ending the persecutions.

of the Christian church. At this time, basic

Noticing that Christians disagreed with one


another on many important points, such as the

Augustine articulated much of his theology in

relationship of Jesus to God, and that these

response to competing interpretations of the faith

debates were causing unrest and confusion in his

and to non-Christian faiths of the fourth and fifth

empire, Constantine called Christian leaders

centuries. Through these conflicts, Augustine

(bishops) from across the empire to a council at

provided significant explorations of the Trinity and

Nicaea in 325 C.E. This first major council of the

human sinfulness, as well as the relationship

Christian churches clarified key points of theology,

between church and state. Augustine’s numerous

including the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus (see

writings greatly influenced Christian thought


























Reformation of the sixteenth century and beyond.

contribution of this council was the Nicene Creed. More debates followed in the succeeding years, in

Despite his powerful influence, Augustine did not

Constantinople in 381 C.E., expanded this creed

end the disputes within Christianity. At the

into a longer statement of faith that members of

church councils, which continued to take place

many Christian churches still recite. (For the full

every 50-100 years, questions about

text of the creed, see Appendix.)

humanity and divinity—that is, his identity as the








Son of God—proved an ongoing source of Although lively debates over key theological points

controversy. As Christians from different areas of


the world drew on the philosophical traditions of





their cultures to reflect upon these questions, the

The key figure of the German protest was a

most marked differences arose between Christian

Christian monk, Martin Luther (1483-1543). In 1517

leaders of the Latin West and those of the Greek

Luther wrote ninety-five theses criticizing various

East. In the year 1054 C.E., these disagreements

corruptions in the church, most notably its

culminated in the “Great Schism” that divided

practice of selling “indulgences.” In their original

Christianity into two major strands, Western and

form, indulgences were gifts offered to the church

Eastern. Today, Eastern Christianity includes the

by repentant sinners to show their gratitude to

Orthodox churches, while Western Christianity

God for the forgiveness of their sins. By the early

includes the Catholic and Protestant churches.

1500s, the practice had become corrupted, and it

Because the Orthodox Church in America

appeared that the Christian church was selling

accounts for only about one percent of Christians

forgiveness rather than merely accepting gifts

in the United States, this primer considers only

from the faithful. Luther criticized this practice for

Western Christianity from this point on.





Christians think they could buy God’s forgiveness. Western Christianity flourished during the High

Instead, Luther preached that salvation is a gift

Middle Ages of eleventh- to thirteenth-century

from God that comes through faith alone upon

Europe. Christianity inspired exquisite art, music,

repentance for sin. Luther also objected to the

and architecture. As the first universities were

hierarchical structure of the Christian church,

established, Christian theology became highly

arguing that any Christian could interpret the

systematized, most notably in the works of

Bible and serve as a minister as well as any other;

Thomas Aquinas (b. 1225-d. 1274). The leader of

this idea is now known as the “priesthood of all

the Western Christian church, the pope, was a

believers.” His efforts at reform, however, met

major figure in European politics. During the

with resistance, and in 1522 Christian authorities

fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, the


papacy lost some of its moral authority due to

continued his attempts at reform, and his

widespread corruption in the church, and many

followers eventually formed a new Christian

Christians began to question the power of Rome.

group distinct from the original Western or





“Catholic” church. These Christians became The Emergence of Protestant Christianity (1500

known as “Lutherans” and remained most


numerous in Germany. Today, in the United States, Lutherans are one of the larger Protestant denominations, numbering about five million.

These questions eventually led to another major split within the Christian church in the early sixteenth century. What is now known as

Other reformations closely followed Luther’s. The

Protestant Christianity first began to emerge in

most successful included the Calvinist, English,

present-day Germany, where Christians protested

and radical reformations; these

(hence the name “Protestant”) corruption in the

eventually resulted in several new churches. (As a

Christian church.

result of these and subsequent divisions, the


various Christian churches are distinguished by differences in theology and worship practices and


as “denominations.”) The

Anabaptists refused to baptize infants, instead

Calvinists took their name from the French

deferring baptism until people were old enough to

lawyer and theologian John Calvin (1509-1564),

request it. In the United States today, Quakers

who fled the Catholic city of Paris to avoid

and Mennonites trace their origins to Anabaptists.

persecution for his religious ideas. He eventually

Most have adopted a modern lifestyle, but small

settled in the thoroughly Protestant city of Geneva.

numbers within these denominations live in

While several of Calvin’s ideas paralleled Luther’s,

isolated communities, witnessing to their faith by

Calvin advocated a closer relationship between

dressing simply and preserving traditional ways of

church and state than Luther. (For more on the

living. One well-known example is the Amish

relationship between church and state in the U.S.,

community in Pennsylvania. In the United States

see the paper on Separation of Church and State.)

today, groups who trace their beginnings to the


Radical Reformation are much smaller in


now known





comparison to other Christian denominations.

Europeans, including an English group known as the Puritans. The Puritans immigrated across the Atlantic in the late seventeenth century; as a


result, the United States has a strong Reformed-


Calvinist tradition. Several present-day American

original manifestations of Protestant Christianity



as distinct from Catholic Christianity. In response

Congregationalists, and the Reformed Church in

to the Protestant reformations, the Catholic

America, have Calvinist roots.





groups—Lutherans, and









reaffirmed certain teachings, most notably at the The English Reformation began in 1529 with

Council of Trent (1545-1563); this response became

King Henry VIII’s decision to annul his marriage


in defiance of the pope’s orders. To justify his

Structurally, however, the Catholic church has

annulment in religious terms, Henry established

continued until the present time in much the

the English or “Anglican” church, making

same form as it had in the Middle Ages; Roman

himself the titular head. This church eventually

Catholic churches in the United States are part of

adopted a blend of Catholic and Protestant ideas;

the worldwide Roman Catholic Church.




the Thirty-Nine Articles, written in the latter years the

Protestant denominations continued to multiply

principles of Anglican theology. In the United

in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Drawing on and further adapting Reformation



sixteenth today,







ideas, additional groups such as Wesleyans, which

Anglican roots.

includes Methodists and some Pentecostals, The Anabaptists, whose movement is called the

Restorationists, namely the Churches of Christ

“Radical Reformation,” separated themselves

and Disciples of Christ, and Baptists organized in

more definitively from the Roman faith than the

England and the United States. Baptists are now

Lutherans or Calvinists. Anabaptists rejected

the largest Protestant denominational group in

some traditional worship practices that Lutherans

the United States, with about forty-seven million









membership in


Southern, or independent Baptist churches. (For a




discussion of the status in the United States of

denominations do not.



religions other than Christianity, see the paper on Religious Pluralism in the United States.)

Fundamentalist Christianity

Contemporary Protestant Christianity in the

Another term sometimes used to describe certain

United States

Christians—and people of other faiths, including Muslims—is fundamentalist. This term refers to

In the contemporary United States, Christians

people who maintain a literalist interpretation of









Christianity, fundamentalist Protestants share

“conservative,” or some combination of these

the evangelical emphasis on Jesus Christ but

terms. Each term is controversial and freighted

shun participation in American politics and

with subtext. This section begins to unpack these

culture. Also, they often insist upon a literal









of the




whereas other

Christians understand some parts of the Bible to be symbolic or metaphorical. Not all Christian

Evangelical Christianity





movement known as evangelicalism. The meaning

insofar as they embrace the three foundational

of the term “evangelical” is commonly used to

beliefs described above. In the United States today,


Christian fundamentalists constitute a small but






American Protestantism is often associated with a





vocal minority of the Christian population.

evangelization, or converting non-Christians to faith in Jesus. As a general rule, evangelicals

Liberal and Conservative Christianity

stress three core beliefs: Christianity requires conversion or “rebirth” through a personal spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ; Christians


must witness their faith to or “evangelize”

sometimes characterized as liberal or conservative.

Christians and non-Christians alike; the Bible is

Some denominations even contain both liberal

directly inspired by God. Many other Christians,

and conservative groups. Generally speaking,

such as Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Catholics,

liberal Christians accept historical and scientific

also share these three beliefs; thus, evangelicals

information that calls into question the literal

can be members of almost any denomination.

truth of some biblical stories, while conservatives

However, some denominations, such as Baptists

are typically less convinced that such knowledge is

and Wesleyans, are more evangelical than others,

relevant to faith. For example, liberals typically

such as Catholics and Lutherans. One major

acknowledge the theory of evolution as a credible


explanation of life’s origins, while conservatives














adhere to a literal interpretation of the biblical

doctrine as similar in importance to the three core

account of creation. In contrast to conservatives,


liberals also tend to display more openness toward


cultural attitudes about social problems and hold

conservative tendencies. Clearly, the distinctions

a more positive view of human nature.

go far beyond the simple division between Catholic and Protestant. Nevertheless, basic




similarities in theology and practice remain; the


next section explains these.

denominations that can be grouped according to evangelical,




BASIC CONCEPTS IN CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Given this brief history of Christianity, one can


imagine the difficulty of summarizing the basics

understanding of the sacraments, as will be


explained in a later section.











Protestants are all Christians, and they do share some basic and vital similarities in their religious

What does it mean to understand God as both in

beliefs and practices. They worship a monotheistic

and beyond the world? On the one hand, God is

God, manifested in Trinitarian form; they believe


that all humans are sinners, saved from their sin

comprehension. Christians, not unlike Muslims,

by the grace of God through Jesus; they profess

stand in awe of the majesty and dominion of God

that the Bible is God’s word; they regard worship

over the earth. Christians proclaim that just as the

and prayer as important; they share sacramental

human eye cannot look directly into the sun, so

practices; and they attempt to lead ethical lives.

human beings cannot comprehend the full

The following summaries of each of these points

magnificence of God. On the other hand, the Bible

offer an introductory but by no means exhaustive

is filled with earthly analogies for God, such as a

description of these core beliefs.

parent, a shepherd, a woman searching for a lost





coin, a king, and even a mother hen. So Christians also believe God loves humanity like a shepherd


tending a flock or a parent caring for children. The Christians believe in a God who is omnipresent.

challenge for Christians is to maintain a balanced

This God is understood as both immanent, or

view of God as both in and outside of the world—to

present within the world, and transcendent,

remember that although they believe God cares

having an existence far beyond the world and

for them tenderly as a mother, God also remains a

beyond human imagination and experience.

mystery beyond their comprehension. Thus,

Christians believe that individual persons and

Christians commonly feel reverence, love, and

groups can enjoy a personal relationship with God,

trust towards God: they recognize God’s wondrous

but that God always remains a mystery beyond

majesty, yet they are also grateful for God’s

human understanding. Catholics and Protestants

merciful and intimate concern for them and the

share this view of God, although Catholics often

entire world.

stress God’s immanence more than Protestants.


Christian perceptions of God come primarily from

Christianity. These documents describe the early

the scriptures. The Hebrew Scriptures represent

communities’ faith in the message of Jesus’

God as Lord of all, the one true deity of the cosmos.

ministry and how they spread this message.

The Christian Scriptures continue to emphasize the monotheism of the Hebrew Scriptures,

The Christian Scriptures report that there was no

describing God as underived and unsurpassable.

consensus about who Jesus was during his

In the Gospels, for example, Jesus teaches only

human lifetime, even among those who knew



him. Although, even during his ministry, his

emphasize God’s reign over all that is. In doing so,

disciples are sometimes portrayed as believing he

they believe they are faithful to the scriptures

was the Messiah and the son of God, other people

(both Hebrew and Christian) and to Jesus’

thought he was a prophet or simply a great

teachings. Indeed, according to Christian tradition,

teacher. In a gradual process that began during

sin is defined as turning away from God.

Jesus’ ministry and continued for many years after




his death and resurrection, his followers came to Alluding to Jesus, however, raises questions about

believe that he was the son of God. The gradual

the Christian claim to monotheism. Christians

development of this belief is evident in the

are distinguished from other monotheists by their


belief in Jesus as the divine son of God. Non-

documents that describe the worship practices of

Christians correctly ask: if Christians believe that

early Christian communities. As noted, the

Jesus is the son of God and worship him as God,

earliest Christians were Jews who continued to

how can they claim to be monotheists? The


answer, for Christians, is found in the doctrine of


the Trinity. To understand the Trinity, it is best

understand Jesus’ promise, recorded in the

first to consider the Christian belief in Jesus as

Gospels, that he would continue to be with them



even when they could no longer see him, and that

Christians’ understanding of Jesus was what

he would send his spirit to them as well. Gradually,

prompted the development of the doctrine of the

through much prayer, worship, and discussion,


Christians came to believe that God was now with


















them in three distinct ways: the “Father” or God of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus the Son, and the

Jesus Christ

Spirit. Christians’ beliefs about Jesus are based in and other historical artifacts and

Centuries passed before Christians officially

documents. Since few of these other documents

decided that they could believe that Jesus was

contain information about Jesus, most knowledge

divine without sacrificing their belief in one God.

comes from the Christian Scriptures. As noted,

How could this be? At the great councils of Nicaea,

the four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ life and

Chalcedon, and beyond, Christians determined



that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.

Scriptures includes letters written by the apostle

They argued that only God could save humans, but

Paul and others from the first generations of

only a human should pay the debt owed to God for





of the


The Trinity

sin. Thus, they came to believe that Jesus experienced the fullness of human existence— including birth, life, and death—yet was also

While the above subsection explains how the early

divine. Christians respect Jesus’ mother Mary as

Christians’ experience and memories of Jesus led

the “Mother of God” because she gave birth to

them to believe that God was present with them in

God’s own son. Christians believe that God

three ways, the doctrine of the Trinity remains

became human in Jesus to provide access to God’s

one of the most difficult points of Christian

grace, and Christians view Jesus as the ideal

theology to explain. Again, according to this

human being, the full revelation of God’s plan for

doctrine, God is one being who is revealed to

humanity. Because of their faith in Jesus,

human beings in three ways: Father, Son (Jesus),

Christians believe that God is with them, loves

and Spirit. In light of this assertion, Christian

them and saves them from sin and death, and will

monotheism is easily challenged. If the God of the

raise them to eternal life. In the end, Jesus’

Hebrew Scriptures is God, and Jesus is God, and

simultaneous divinity and humanity is a mystery

the Spirit is God, how can Christians claim to

that Christians confess in faith, although they

believe in one God and not three?

cannot fully explain it. In light of their encounters with Jesus, the early Christians also believe that Jesus brings God’s


forgiveness of sin to humanity. Christians call this

monotheistic roots—came to believe that the

“salvation” or “atonement.” “Salvation” means

trinitarian nature of God was compatible with

that sin is taken away and people are reconciled

monotheism. They remembered, as recorded in

with God. While all Christians believe that Jesus

the Christian Scriptures, that Jesus had a unique

accomplished this, no consensus has been

relationship with God, whom he called his father;

reached among Christians about how exactly he

that Jesus had promised to be with them even

did so, as the scriptures describe it in various ways.

after he was no longer visible to them; and that

For example, the word “atonement” usually refers

Jesus had said he would also send his Spirit to

specifically to the belief that it was Jesus’ death on

them. Christians believed the Spirit did come to

the cross that accomplished the taking away of

them at Pentecost, an event chronicled in the

sins; the cross thus symbolizes both human guilt

Christian Scriptures. As time went on, Christians

and God’s mercy. However, some Christians object

also began to notice that several passages in their

to “atonement theology” on the grounds that it

scriptures could be interpreted as describing

portrays God as a cruel and irresponsible parent,

distinctions within God. For example, the Gospels

condemning a child to a horrible death. These

instruct Christians to be baptized “in the name of

Christians prefer to emphasize Jesus’ teaching

the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

and healing ministry as reconciling people with

In this way, over several centuries, the doctrine of



the Trinity slowly took shape. As noted above, it

perpetrated by sinful people, not intended by God.

was first officially formulated in the creed of the

Despite these differences, all Christians believe

Council of Nicaea in 325 and developed further at

that through Jesus, God saves them from sin and

Constantinople in 381.






promises them eternal life.





The Bible and Church Authority

Of course, the councils did not end debate over the Trinity. Given that the idea is difficult to comprehend, Christians have explained it with

Catholics and Protestants alike view the Bible as

varying degrees of success. At times it has

the revealed word of God and the primary

degenerated into a belief in God as three distinct

authority for Christian life and worship. All

divine beings or as one God revealed in different

Christians respect the ability of individual persons

ways at different times. Such conceptions of the

to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, but

Trinity have given rise to charges of polytheism. In

they do so in various ways. On the one hand,

general, Christian theologians have succeeded

Protestant churches tend to follow a central

better at saying what the Trinity is not than at

principle of the sixteenth-century Reformations in

explaining what it is. Briefly, however, the three


persons can be described as follows:

Christians to interpret the Bible for themselves.

God the


absolute other




“Father” is the creator of all that is; God the “Son”


is Jesus, who became human and came to earth;

emphasizes that individual Christians who are

God the “Spirit” is the wisdom of God whom Jesus

reading the Bible should also consider the long

sent to be with humans after he left the earth.

tradition of church interpretation of scripture.

Theologians and mystics have understood these


three persons of the Trinity to have various names.

interpretation of the Bible, further exploration of

The most commonly used are Father, Son, and

each one’s notion of church is needed. This section

Spirit; others include Creator, Redeemer, and

gives a general account of the theology behind the

Sanctifier, and Mother, Daughter, and Wisdom.

different Christian churches. (For a description of









the varieties of religious worship and expression In sum, the Christian view of the Trinity is that

among Christians, see the paper on Religious

the one eternal God is manifest in three ways.


Christians believe that God has one nature, and that nature is to be relational; thus, the three

Generally speaking, Protestants view church as a

divine “persons” are believed not only to exist in

group of Christian believers who come together to

Christians’ experiences of God but also to

worship God and support each other in their

correspond to real distinctions within God. How

efforts to live a Christian life. Scripture serves as

exactly this works remains a mystery. A common

the final spiritual authority of the church; it is

way to understand the Trinity is by analogy. For

interpreted individually by each member as well

example, consider the several roles a single

as collectively by the group. According to Luther’s

woman may occupy. She may be a daughter, a wife,

principle of the priesthood of all believers, any

and a mother. In each of these roles, she functions

individual may be called forth by the community

differently in relationship to the people around

to serve as its spiritual leader or pastor. The pastor

her. She remains one woman, yet at the same

is not assumed to have a special understanding of

time, real differences in her own personhood

the Bible compared to the other church members.

correspond to her various roles. Similarly, for

Since they understand church as a particular

Christians, the one eternal God is three persons

community of believers, Protestants—especially

sharing one divine nature.







interpret the Bible as relevant to their current

of the individual parishes, decide who will serve as

situation with less attention to how it has been

priest for each parish. The bishop of Rome is

interpreted in the past.

known as the pope, and he serves as the symbolic head of the worldwide Catholic church. As the

Some Protestant churches, such as Lutherans,

“first among equals,” the pope is considered to be

Methodists, and especially Episcopalians, proceed

the successor of Peter. Catholics do not worship

formally in training and assigning their leaders.

the pope—only God is worshiped—but they do

In the Episcopalian church, which as noted is

hold the office of the papacy in very high esteem

theologically a blend of Catholic and Protestant

because it symbolizes the unity of the worldwide

principles, leaders succeed one another in a

Catholic church.

formal fashion similar to that of the Catholic church. This “apostolic succession” is connected

As noted, like Protestants, Catholics believe that

theologically back to Peter, one of Jesus’ closest

any Christian can read and interpret the Bible.

followers who is now considered the first bishop of


Rome (i.e., the pope). In these Protestant churches,

understanding of the church as a community that

as in the more

evangelical churches, the

includes all believers, even those who have died,

emphasis in scriptural interpretation is usually on

contemporary interpretations of scripture take

its present meaning, not on a tradition of past

into account past interpretations. The Catholic

interpretation. However, they do have a long

tradition of successive church leadership dates

history of scholarly biblical interpretation. A

back to before most people were literate, when

difference is that when major disagreements over

only priests and bishops could actually read and



had to interpret the Bible for the people. Often

denominations will call general meetings to

these interpretations were written down and have

discuss them, whereas less highly organized

been preserved as the collective wisdom of the

evangelical churches are more likely simply to

church. Because official church leaders and those

split and form new churches along these lines.

trained in church history and theology have a








broad knowledge of this historical tradition of In contrast to most Protestants, Catholics define

scriptural interpretation, their opinions also carry

church as a much larger community. For Catholics,

weight with individual Catholics as they read the

church includes not only the believers in a

scriptures. Thus, the Catholic church has a long

particular faith community, but also all Catholics

tradition of scriptural interpretation.

around the world and even all believers who have died and whose souls are believed to be with God.

In the end, however, the Catholic church

The Catholic church has a very formal training or

emphasizes the final authority of the individual

“ordination” process for its leaders; its leadership

conscience. It teaches that individual Catholics

consists of a hierarchical structure of priests, who

who sincerely pray and study the scriptures should

lead individual parishes, and bishops, who lead all

follow their consciences regarding

the parishes in a given region (for example, all the

matters, even if they disagree with church leaders

Catholic parishes in eastern Massachusetts are

and even if—as sometimes happens in extreme

headed by one bishop). Bishops, not the members







excommunication from the church. This option of







legitimate disagreement with church leaders is

believers” and stress contemporary interpretation

called “dissent.” Depending on the issue and on

of the Bible, while Catholics and some Protestants

who is dissenting, church leaders treat dissent as

also respect the long tradition of scriptural

more or less of a problem. For example, many

interpretation, including the teaching ability of

Catholics disagree with the church’s official

church leaders and theologians. The authority

position on the issue of birth control, and this has

and legitimacy of a Protestant church or leader

not been considered serious enough to merit

often correlates only to adherence to the Bible,

punishment. However, a few American bishops

while for Catholics, tradition is an important part

have attempted to discipline prominent Catholic

of both biblical interpretation and the appointing

politicians who deviate from the church’s strict

of church leaders.

anti-abortion stance. The tradition of dissent shows that although Catholics place more weight

While all Christians understand the Bible as the

than Protestants on church tradition as an

authority for Christian life, they differ over the

important part of scriptural interpretation, all

question of the Bible’s “inerrancy.” Representing

Christians ultimately rely on the Bible and their

the far ends of the spectrum are Catholics and

consciences as the final spiritual authority in

fundamentalist Protestants. Catholics believe the

living the Christian life.

Bible was inspired by God but composed by various people over many centuries, so they view

Traditional Catholic teachings derive from and

inconsistencies and contradictions as a result of

are interdependent with scripture. Catholics


regard the sacred writings of the Bible as the

Catholics, the challenge is to determine which

inspired word of God, written by humans who

passages are directly relevant and which must be

were guided by the Holy Spirit. For Catholics, the

reinterpreted. Fundamentalist Protestants believe

Bible is not free from human error, yet it

that God’s inspiration of the scriptures means that

nevertheless constitutes the record of God’s

everything recorded in them is literally true and

revelation and design for the world. Catholic

free from error, or “inerrant”; they consider the

tradition helps distinguish the divine elements

Bible to be directly applicable to contemporary life.

from the human elements in the Bible. For

Evangelical, conservative, and liberal Protestants

instance, Catholics (and most Protestants) now

fall between these two extremes. Evangelical and

interpret the biblical justification of slavery as a

conservative Protestants typically understand the

function of a past historical era, and they are

Bible as inspired by God, with any apparent errors

certain that slavery is contrary to God’s will. In this


way, tradition provides guidance for Catholics.

struggle to understand; liberal Protestants tend to










see inconsistencies as due to human error and cultural change.

In sum, both Protestants and Catholics believe that the church is composed of humans gathered together to confess their faith in Jesus and worship God. All Christians agree that the Bible is the primary authority for Christian life. Most


as the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of

Sin and Reconciliation

Justification,” which

was published

by the

In accordance with their reading of the Bible,

Lutheran and Catholic churches, show that this

Christians believe that human beings were

particular difference is being resolved.

originally created in the image of God, meaning Sacraments

that they were completely good. However, people used their free will to turn away from God, following their own desires rather than God’s will.

In Christian worship, sacraments are ritual

This gave rise to a universal human tendency

practices that are believed to bring people into

toward evil that Christians call “original sin”;


individual sinful acts are believed to be rooted in

understood as visible signs of God’s grace. When a

this condition. Despite their sinfulness, Christians

sacrament is performed, prayers are said and

believe humans are still the image of God;

elements such as water, wine, bread, and oil may

Catholics hold a more optimistic view than


Protestants about the extent to which the image

sacraments, while Catholics, in accordance with

remains present. Although humans retain a

their greater emphasis on God’s immanence,

tremendous capacity for good, the tendency

celebrate seven. Almost all Christians observe the

towards sin often outweighs the impulse towards

sacraments of baptism

good. This leads to a universal human need for


salvation from sin and reconciliation with God.






used. Protestants usually celebrate



and five




Eucharist. For are


confession, orders,


anointing of the sick. Thus, sacraments often Christians understand reconciliation with God as

mark important epochs in a Christian’s life. This

something accomplished by Jesus and accepted by

section describes the sacraments of baptism and

the Christian in faith. As noted in the section on


Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection reveal God’s love and mercy. And as the Reformations stressed,

Baptism celebrates a person’s entrance into the

forgiveness of sins (also called justification) also

Christian family. In some denominations, such as

comes from God as a gift; it has nothing to do with


human achievements. Catholics and Protestants


share this view of justification as a free gift offered

performed when the person requests it. According

through Jesus and accepted in faith. While all

to the Christian Scriptures, the tradition of

Christians also agree that faith should lead to

baptism began with Jesus, who, following a Jewish

living a Christian life, or performing “good

custom, was baptized with water at the start of his

works,” they sometimes disagree about the

ministry. Since then, Christians have been

relationship of faith and works. In particular,

baptized to symbolize their new identity as God’s



children as they commence lives as Christians. At

emphasized the need to grow in faith by doing

a baptism, the person being baptized—or, if an

good works, while other Christians such as

infant, the person’s parents—affirms his or her

Lutherans have stressed the distinction between

belief in the Trinitarian God. Water is then

faith and works. However, recent documents such

sprinkled on the person’s head, or the person may









as infants; in others, baptism is

be fully immersed in water, to symbolize the

body and blood or actually become Jesus’ body and

washing away of sin. The baptized person enters


the Christian life as a new creature, freed from

Reformers had diverse understandings of the

original sin. This freedom is not experienced fully

Eucharist. Luther taught the Real Presence of

in earthly life; Christians do not claim that they no

Christ in the Eucharist but declined to speculate

longer sin after baptism. Rather, they are

about exactly what this meant. Anglicans held that

confident that God forgives their sins, and with

Christ was present in the bread and wine “in a

faith in their reconciliation with God through

heavenly sense,” while Calvin maintained that

Jesus, they try to perform only good works. When

the sacrament served simply to remind believers

they fail, they remember God’s forgiveness as

of Jesus’ death. Meanwhile, Catholics retained the

symbolized at their baptism and try to do better.

medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, the idea





that the bread and wine are transformed into The Eucharist, usually known among Protestants

Jesus’ body and blood. Today, while

as the Lord’s Supper or communion, is the second

Protestants and Catholics observe the Eucharist,

sacrament Christians celebrate regularly. In

most Protestant churches teach that the bread and

Catholic churches the Eucharist is celebrated

wine somehow symbolize Jesus’ presence; the

daily, while

may only

Catholic church, here interpreting the Bible more

celebrate it every week or once a month. The

literally, still teaches that the bread and wine

Eucharist is usually celebrated within the context

mysteriously become the body and blood of Christ.




of a worship service; it reenacts the final meal Jesus ate with his followers before his death. The

In addition to baptism and Eucharist, the other

Christian Scriptures report that at this meal,

five sacraments celebrated in the Catholic church

which was a Jewish Passover feast, Jesus broke

are reconciliation (confession and forgiveness of

bread and raised a cup of wine. He declared that

sins), confirmation (the adult decision to remain

the bread and wine were his body and blood, given

part of the church), marriage, holy orders or

to his followers for the forgiveness of sin, and he

“ordination,” and anointing of the sick. These

instructed the disciples to eat and drink in this

sacraments mark major milestones in the life of

manner in memory of him. Accordingly, in


Christian worship, the minister (pastor or priest)

milestones and even use similar terms to describe

takes bread and wine, repeats the words Jesus

them, but they do not consider these events to be

spoke, and invites all believers to consume the

“sacraments.” This practice dates back to Luther,

bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus.











relationship with God over the role of church leaders.

Christians have long debated about whether the Eucharistic bread and wine only symbolize Jesus’


CHRISTIAN SPIRITUAL PRACTICES: WORSHIP AND PRAYER Communal worship—informal or formal services

sermon. Christian worship services usually last

during which Christians gather to offer praise and

between sixty and ninety minutes but may be

thanksgiving to God—is central to all Christian

longer or shorter. (For more on Christian worship

denominations. Communal worship may occur

practices, see the paper on Religious Practice in


the United States.)






Protestants usually attend services on Sunday mornings. The style of these services differs

Because Christians believe in a personal God who

greatly among the denominations.

listens to individuals, and because Jesus instructs his followers to pray in the Christian Scriptures,

The Catholic Mass is a liturgical celebration that

Christians pray to sustain their relationship with

includes songs of praise, formal prayers, readings

God. Prayer takes many forms, including the

from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, a talk

ritualized prayers of worship services, personal

by the priest interpreting the scriptures called the

prayer, group prayer, and even Bible study. Prayers

“sermon” or “homily,” the recitation of the

may be silent or spoken aloud; contemplative,



nonverbal forms of prayer are also practiced.

sacrament of Eucharist. The Mass is often

Intercessory prayer, asking others to pray on one’s

described as “high church” because of the strict

behalf, is also common. For Catholics, as noted,

organization of the liturgy, the formal prayers,

the church includes all believers, even those who

and the ceremonial robes worn by the priest.

have died; therefore, Catholics sometimes ask



saints, including Mary, the mother of God, to Protestant worship ranges from “high church” to

“intercede” with God on their behalf. Among all

“low church” forms. Lutheran and Episcopal

Christians, the Lord’s Prayer or “Our Father,”

services are quite similar to the Catholic Mass,

which Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in the

while evangelical worship often consists more

Gospels, is the most-recited prayer. (For the text of

simply of singing, a scripture reading, and a

the Lord’s Prayer, see the Appendix.)

ETHICAL CHRISTIAN LIVING How do these fundamentals of Christian theology

Jesus teaches in the Gospels that Christians are to

transfer into action in the lives of Christians? The

love God and to love their neighbors as themselves,

answer is complex, for the multiple expressions of

whether the neighbor be friend or enemy.

Christian faith give rise to various understandings

Christians do not always succeed in following this

of the ethical Christian life. In general, however,

command; however, it is manifested in the 15






insufficient income or satisfaction; when injustice


prevents a person from undertaking her or his

missionary activity.

proper vocation, that injustice should be resisted. Again, however, from the Christian perspective,






any work




Like everyone else, Christians must work to earn a




living, and most do not have jobs in churches. Yet

neighbor and the common good can also serve

vocation refers to the idea that people serve God


through their everyday work. How does the Justice

ordinary labor of Christians relate to their spiritual lives? Put simply, Christians believe that any work that serves the neighbor and the

The command to love one’s neighbor also

community—the “common good”—also serves

captures the primary ethical position of Christians.

God. Virtually any labor can become an extension

As noted, this ideal, which Christians strive for but

of Christian faith. The work of doctors, lawyers,

often fail to reach, comes from a scriptural

and politicians has no greater spiritual value than

command of Jesus. The Gospels record Jesus’ own

that of carpenters, trash collectors, and cab drivers;

love for his neighbors and his concern for justice:

what matters is their faithful exercise for the

Jesus cares for the poor, the sick, and the outcasts

benefit of others. This idea extends to Christians’

of society, and he speaks out against the political,

personal lives as well; Christians have an

social, and economic circumstances that worsen

obligation to serve relatives and friends charitably

their plight. Christians today are called to imitate

and responsibly. Of course, Christians do not

Jesus, working to transform the world through

always remember to conceive of their work in this

love and advocacy for justice, as they themselves

fashion and sometimes adopt the idea that certain

have been transformed by the love and forgiveness

kinds of work are inherently more valuable. But

of God.

the Christian idea of vocation is that any good Christians recognize that their efforts to emulate

work, done well, serves God.

Jesus will always fall short, but this does not Christians also use the word “vocation” to refer to

excuse them from striving to obey this ethical

the work for which a person seems particularly


well suited, due to their abilities. Vocations are

circumstances in which they find themselves. For

not always easily determined nor are they always

example, Christians should respect the dignity of

easy. Many people spend much of their lives trying

every human being by trying never to exploit

to identify their talents and how best to use them.

persons, groups, or nations as means to an end.

Moreover, like anyone else, Christians do not

And when conflict arises—whether it is an

always enjoy their work; sometimes, for reasons

argument between two people or the possibility of



international war—Christians should always

education, skill level, or physical ailments—they

exhaust all nonviolent options of reconciliation.

are engaged in unsatisfying jobs. The Christian

Because Christians, like all people, are not perfect,

understanding of vocation does not excuse

they do not always live up to this “love principle”












and they are not always just in their actions and

God and eternal life, they are eager to share their

attitudes. Nevertheless, they are obligated to try.

faith with everyone. At its best, Christian evangelism is an act of love—the ultimate

Missionary Activity

obedience to the command to love one’s neighbor.

The Christian life is also distinguished by

Christian evangelism often causes controversy.

missionary activity, also known as evangelism. In

Non-believers and adherents of other faiths—and

the Gospels, Jesus commands his followers to


spread the good news about God to the whole


world. Christians believe this task is ongoing. The

arrogant, often with good reason. Christian

task of spreading the Gospel intertwines with the

missionary activity has even become associated

Christian understanding of vocation and justice.

with Western imperialism, also with good reason.

Exercising one’s vocation and working toward

As a result, there is no consensus about the most

justice model the Christian faith for non-

appropriate and respectful way to introduce non-

Christians, and as such they constitute a form of

Christians to Christianity. Yet the Christian

indirect evangelism. However, “evangelism” is

desire to spread the faith is not unique. Most of

usually associated with direct efforts to tell non-

the major religious traditions of the world have

Christians about Jesus in the hope of converting

attempted to increase their ranks through various

them to the Christian faith. Because Christians

forms of missionary activity.





themselves—tend self-righteous

to and

believe that Jesus is the way to reconciliation with

CONCLUSION The goal of this paper has been to familiarize the

important challenge for all people of faith is to



learn about religions different from their own.

Christianity and the basic theological tenets of

Meeting that challenge may be the surest path to


peaceful coexistence among people of different








of these


concepts is encouraged. In today’s world, an


APPENDIX The Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”): Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our


debts as we forgive our debtors.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from

is in heaven.

evil. Amen.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 C.E.): We believe in one God,

he suffered death and was buried.

the Father, the Almighty,

On the third day he rose again

maker of heaven and earth,

in accordance with the Scriptures;

of all that is, seen and unseen.

he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

He will come again in glory to judge the living and

the only Son of God,

the dead,

eternally begotten of the Father,

and his kingdom will have no end.

God from God, light from light, true God from true God,

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of

begotten, not made,

life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son],

of one Being with the Father;

who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and

through him all things were made.


For us and for our salvation

who has spoken through the prophets.

he came down from heaven,

We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin



We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of

and became truly human.


For our sake he was crucified under Pontius

We look for the resurrection of the dead,


and the life of the world to come. Amen.

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY AND SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING In order to provide an accessible introduction to religion in the United States, this paper has been produced without footnotes and with few direct quotations from secondary literature. It nevertheless reflects the influence of a wide range of scholarly arguments. This annotated bibliography presents a complete list of the texts to which this paper refers, as well as a number of other resources with further


information about the topics discussed. Comments following each citation indicate the nature of the text and, where applicable, the extent of the paper’s reliance upon it. Books and Articles Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, 5 volumes. Christian Classics, 1981. Augustine. Confessions. Henry Chadwick, trans. Oxford University Press, 1998. Augustine. The City of God. Modern Library, 1994. The Bible. Recommended translations are the New American Bible, New American Standard Bible, or New Revised Standard Version. Some versions offer helpful material in addition to the text; for example, the Catholic Study Bible (Oxford, 2006) contains extensive reading guides that give background and context for each book. Calvin, John. Institutes of Christian Religion. John T. McNeill, ed.; Ford Lewis Battles, trans. Westminster John Knox, 1960. Detailed overview of Christianity from its origins to the present. Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Penguin, 1993. Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity. Prince Press, 1999; originally published in two volumes by HarperSanFrancisco, 1984/85. Overview of the first five centuries of Christian history. Lynch, Joseph. The Medieval Church: A Brief History. Longman, 1995. Overview of Christianity during the medieval period. Corrigan, John, and Winthrop Hudson. Religion in America. Prentice Hall, 2003. Overview of Christianity in the United States from 1607 to the late twentieth century. Flannery, Austin, ed. Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Costello, 1996. [Vatican II documents also online at] Gonzalez, Justo, and Zaida Maldonado Perez. An Introduction to Christian Theology. Abingdon, 2002. Introduces theology topically (by major doctrines) from a Protestant perspective. Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. A classic presentation of the “essentials” of Christian faith for non-Christians. Classified as “apologetics,” meaning that it argues for the reasonableness of Christianity. Luther, Martin. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. John Dillenberger, ed. Anchor, 1958. McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Blackwell, 2001. Introduces theology topically (by major doctrines) from a Protestant perspective. Noll, Mark. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Baker Academic, 2000. Brief overview of Christianity from its origins to the present. Placher, William. A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. Westminster John Knox, 1983. Introduces the development of Christian theology chronologically (as it developed through history) from a Protestant perspective. Placher, William, ed. Readings in Christian Theology, Vol. I: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation and Vol. 2: From the Reformation to the Present. Westminster John Knox, 1988. Rausch, Thomas. The College Student’s Introduction to Theology. Michael Glazier, 1993. Introduces theology topically (by major doctrines) from a Roman Catholic perspective. Simons, Menno. Complete Writings. Herald Press, 1956.


This project was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.


An Introduction to Christian Theology

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