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THE BOISI CENTER PAPERS ON RELIGION IN THE UNITED STATES 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 Christian theology as it is understood in the American context. It explains the major beliefs or doctrines that are generally accepted by all Christians while also highlighting the theological diversity of the Christian churches. In other words, although all Christians adhere to the doctrines discussed here, various groups of Christians often interpret these doctrines differently. These disagreements usually have historical roots; thus, Christianity’s historical development is inseparable from its doctrinal development. For this reason, the paper gives an overview of Christianity’s historical development before moving into a discussion of the major Christian beliefs. As would be the case with any religious tradition, the complexity of Christian theology and history cannot be explained fully in a brief paper. Many nuances of Christian theology and history tend to remain in the background of how Christianity is perceived and practiced in the United States; frequently, these details may not even be familiar to American Christians themselves. Nevertheless, some knowledge of these particulars is essential to ground an accurate understanding of Christianity. This paper thus provides an important complement to the other papers in the Boisi Center series. In particular, since religious beliefs and religious practices always inform one another, reading this paper together with the paper on Religious Practice in the United States is recommended. The paper begins with a brief historical outline of the beginnings and major divisions of Christianity. It then summarizes the Christian beliefs in God, Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Bible and authority, sin and reconciliation, sacraments, spiritual practices, and ethical living.
2 A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY The history of Christianity unfolds organically through time. It is commonly understood to begin with Jesus, who was born two thousand years ago. However, because Jesus was Jewish, some date Christianity’s roots much further back, to the beginnings of Judaism. To illustrate the vast sweep of historical development, this section proceeds in four parts. First, it addresses the roots of Christianity in the first through the third centuries C.E. (“Common Era,” dating from the time of Jesus’ birth); second, it describes Christianity’s development through the Middle