What are Major
Christianity is at least three things:
• A set of beliefs
• A way of life
• A community of people
Different Christian groups place different weights on these three aspects, but they always involve all three. All three aspects are based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who is also known as the Christ. ("Christ" was originally a title. It is the Greek form of the Hebrew "Messiah", meaning "anointed".)
This page is an introduction to the beliefs. To get a reasonable picture of Christian beliefs, you should read at least this page and the next one, on the Gospel. In case you are interested in more details, there are also several pages dealing with specific beliefs: the Incarnation, the Trinity, and a set of issues involving free will and God's overall responsibility. The latter page is called predestination.
For the role of the Christian community, see the page on the Church . For the way of life, see the pages on the Christian life, worship, the law, and expressing love.
Christianity shares a number of beliefs and practices with other religions, particularly Judaism and Islam. With Judaism and Islam, Christians believe in one God, who created the universe and all that is in it. All believe that this God is active in history, guiding and teaching his people. All three religions, including Christianity, have been called "ethical monotheism". This term emphasizes the belief in one God, and the fact that following this God commits us to a number of specific ethical rules or principles.
Christianity originally developed as a part of Judaism. Jesus was a Jew. He lived from about 3 BC to 30 AD. He lived and taught in Palestine, primarily (although not exclusively) among fellow Jews. Christianity separated from the main body of Judaism for two major reasons:
1. Christianity came to regard Jesus as in some sense God's presence in human form. This was unacceptable to most Jews.
2. Judaism is defined by a covenant made between God and the Jewish people. Part of this covenant is the Law, a set of religious and ethical rules and principles. Most Christians came to regard both this covenant and Law as in some sense superseded by Jesus' teaching and the community that he established. On the night he died, Jesus talked about establishing a "new covenant" based on his death and resurrection.
These two issues continue to be among the most distinctive and controversial aspects of Christianity. They are controversial even among Christians. All Christians assign Jesus a role that would seem inappropriate to Jews. However his exact relationship with God was the source of major disagreements among Christians as late as the 5th Century. While most modern Christians accept the standards developed in the 4th and 5th Centuries, there are small groups that do not. This aspect of Christianity is also often attacked or reinterpreted by "liberal" elements within Christianity.
The role of the Law also continues to cause controversy within Christianity. In a narrow sense this is reflected in small groups of Christians that worship on Saturday rather than Sunday, in obedience to one of the provisions of the Law. In a broader sense, the current conflict about the role of women and homosexuals in the Church involves the Christian approach to ethical and cultic standards.
The Role of Christian Beliefs
Before talking about specific beliefs, it's probably worth saying something about the role of beliefs in Christianity. Christianity tends to put more importance on proper belief than many other religions. The term "orthodox" (from roots meaning "right belief") is used to describe beliefs that are in agreement with the standards set up by the Christian community.
When you say that someone is a Christian, you normally mean that he accepts the major Christian beliefs. That's not the whole story, since Christianity is also a way of life and a community. But most Christians do not think it is appropriate to apply the term Christian based simply on the fact that someone has Christian parents and grew up as a Christian, or even based on the fact that they admire many of Jesus' teachings. To be classified as a Christian, one is normally expected to accept the major Christian beliefs, to be following the way of life that Jesus taught, and to be a part of the Christian community.
Most Christian groups have standards of belief. Members are expected to accept the standards of their community. This is not to say that Christians have no questions or doubts. Most groups (even fairly rigid ones) permit members to express uncertainty and to question beliefs. However most groups expect leaders and teachers to advocate orthodox positions. Groups differ both in the way their standards are codified, and in the degree of conformity that they expect. Some have detailed formal standards of belief. Others use only the Bible, and allow a good deal of variation in interpretation.
This document will tend to emphasize beliefs. It's worth noting that this emphasis may be misleading, both about what Jesus originally taught and about what it is like to be a Christian. The most controversial aspects of Christianity -- and those that are emphasized in presentations of Christianity -- tend to be beliefs, particularly beliefs about Jesus. However Jesus' teachings were primarily about how his followers should live. It is these teachings that form the heart of Christian life for most Christians. Unfortunately they are hard to summarize. They are also less commonly talked about in Christian discussion groups, largely because they are less controversial. That's why I have advised people who are interested in Christianity to read at least one of the Gospels in addition to (indeed before) this document. The Gospels are made up primarily of Jesus' teachings, as well as narratives about his life.
God as Father and Creator
There are several branches of Christianity, whose beliefs vary in detail. However one standard that is accepted by most of them is the "Apostles' Creed". I will base my discussion here on it. I will go through it section by section.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.
Christians believe in one God, who created the universe and all that is in it. God is a person, but of a somewhat different type than human beings. While humans have both physical and spiritual elements, God is entirely spiritual. That is, he exists in a sphere outside the normal physical universe. (Since he created the universe, and existed before it, this should be fairly obvious.)
Human beings are created in the image of God. Obviously there are differences, since we are physical and God is not. What we share with God is the fact that we are rational beings, capable of making responsible decisions, and capable of relationships with each other and with him.
Religions have had very different ideas of how God interacts with the world. On one extreme, some groups found it hard to explain how God could have any dealings with the world at all. These thinkers see God as a pure One, who is not in any way dependent upon anything else.
At the other extreme we have pantheism, in which there is no real distinction between God and the world.
The Christian concept of God as creator holds a middle ground. Christianity conceives of God as One. But it is not an isolated One. Rather, God is a person, who is capable of affecting and being affected by others. This is implicit in the concept of God as Father, which is one of the most characteristic teachings of Jesus. The concept of God as personal ultimately led to the Trinity, which is surely one of the most distinctive (and controversial) ideas in Christianity. (There is a separate page discussing the Trinity.)
In contrast to pantheist and related concepts, the creation is genuinely distinct from God. The world has a genuine existence of its own. God cares about and interacts with the creation. Human beings are responsible to God. As the creator, God is responsible for the world and its history. While I have said that the world is distinct from God, it is not completely independent. God is thought of as continuously sustaining the world.
And in Jesus Christ, His only son
The Creed has an overall form based on the Trinity. Thus it deals first with the Father, then the Son, and finally the Holy Spirit. I'm not going to deal with the Trinity and Incarnation in detail here because there are separate pages for each. However some minimal explanation is necessary.
While the Gospels show Jesus as having a role beyond a normal teacher, most of Jesus' actions and teachings were appropriate for a First Century Jewish teacher. One of the major developments in scholarship about Jesus during the last few decades has been a reassessment of his relationship to Judaism. It is now clear that Jesus was an observant Jew, as such was defined at the time. His teachings generally fit into First Century Judaism. The main exception is his own personal role. That went beyond anything that Judaism as a whole was willing to accept. Some scholars maintain that this role was not intended by Jesus himself, but developed after his death and was read back into the accounts of his life. I personally believe this is false, as I will indicate below. That is, I believe that Jesus did actually intend something like the role that Christians attribute to him.
Christians see Jesus as in some sense embodying God. This is based on his teachings and actions, as well as on further discussions within the Christian community. Every account we have of Jesus sees him as playing a role beyond that of a normal teacher. Different sources express it differently. In some of the Gospels it is implicit in the way Jesus acts: he forgives people's sins, something that only God can do. In the Gospel According to John, he says "I and the Father are one" and "he who has seen me has seen the Father". However he clearly is a normal human being, who sees God as distinct from himself.
Based on this sort of evidence, Christians developed two separate but related concepts: the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Incarnation looks at Jesus' relationship to God. There is a separate page about the incarnation . At this point, I'm simply going to quote two texts from the New Testament. These represent two ways that Jesus was understood within several decades of his death:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. (Heb 1:1-3a)
...his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him.... For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, (Col 1:14-16, 19)
There are two things to note in these passages. The first is that Jesus is seen as a human vehicle for God to be present. Note that in these passages there is both a distinction between Jesus and God, and an identification of Jesus with God. Jesus is a human being. But he is God's way of being present as a human being. He embodies God completely.
The other thing to note is that Christ is seen as "pre-existent". That is, creation was done through him. While he was born sometime around 3 BC, there was also a sense in which that human being embodies something that was around before the world was created. The best-known treatment of this is the beginning of John's Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3a, 14)
Thus Christ is seen in two ways. In pre-existent form he is God's creative power, who was always with God and in fact part of him. As such, he is one of the Trinity. However he was born as a human being in history.
Jesus' life, death, and resurrection
To continue with the Creed:
... our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead, ascended to heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
In this section the Creed talks about Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection. Christianity is based on historical events. The Creed is only a summary, so it doesn't give the entire history of God's dealings with Israel. But that is part of the basis for Christian belief.
One clarification is probably needed: non-Christians sometimes think that Jesus is like some of the pagan demigods, the result of a god having a child with a human mother. The Creed could be read that way. But that's not what it means. God is spiritual. He does not have sexual organs, and thus could not have a child in the physical sense. The Bible says that the birth was miraculous. Jesus' mother was still a virgin. Thus God was responsible for the birth. But not physically.
Jesus was executed by the Roman government, in a particularly gruesome way. However more than just the Romans were involved: he was betrayed by one of his own followers, and handed over by the Jewish authorities to the Romans.
Jesus had warned his disciples that he was going to be killed. He seems to have seen himself as carrying out a role described by the prophet Isaiah in a set of passages often calling the "Suffering Servant" passages. These passages described a person who would suffer on behalf of all of us, bearing the punishments that we deserved because of our sins. As a result, we would be reconciled to God. Jesus quoted Isaiah in discussions with his disciples. He was particularly explicit in the evening right before he was arrested, referring to his blood being shed to establish a new covenant, for the forgiveness of sins.
For a more complete discussion of this issue, please see the next page: the Gospel . It describes the reasons Christians see everyone as needing to be reconciled with God, and the way Jesus is seen has having done that. For the moment I will simply note that Jesus' death and resurrection are the key.
Jesus died, almost certainly on a Friday afternoon (although there are some oddities about the chronology as recorded in the Gospels). He was buried hastily, because the Sabbath (a holy day for the Jews) was about to start. On Sunday morning, a group of women came to the tomb, expecting to finish preparing his body. They found that it was no longer in the tomb. Jesus then began appearing to various of his followers, helping them understand the significance of his death and resurrection.
The term "resurrection" means coming to life again. Note that after the resurrection, Jesus seems to have had a somewhat transformed existence. It does not appear that his body simply came back to life. He was now able to pass through walls. However it was more than a ghost, or a vision. He ate a fish, and let someone touch him.
The Holy Spirit and the Christian life
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
The Holy Spirit is the bond that unites us with God. This is not "the Force." God is personal, so the Holy Spirit is a personal presence.
Christians live in community. Jesus described himself as a vine, with us as the branches. It is not possible to be united with him without also being united with other Christians. The motivating force behind the Christian life is love. Since love is a personal relationship, there's no way to grow in love other than to be with others. This Christian community is called the "Church".
The Creed speaks of the Church as holy and catholic. The term "catholic" means "universal". Because the Church is Christ's body, there is ultimately only one Church. While the ideal is that the Church is holy and one, the reality is that it is human. That means that it is often less than holy, and it is all too often far from one. This does not mean that we can live without it. Christian love isn't real unless it's willing to come to grips with real human relationships and the problems that arise with them.
The term "communion of saints" refers to the unity of all of Christ's followers, living and dead.
Forgiveness of sins is one of the key marks of Christianity. Christ died to seal our forgiveness by God. We are expected to respond by forgiving each other, and acting as a force for reconciliation in the world.
The term "resurrection of the body" is worth a note: It's fairly common for religions to believe that there is some existence after death. However this is often seen in ways that would be better described as "immortality of the soul". That is, many religions believe that there is something in human beings beyond the body. This survives death, and is in some way united with God.
Christians generally believe in the immortality of the soul (though a few do not). However the characteristic Christian belief is something else: the resurrection of the body. Christianity, like Judaism, sees the body as an intrinsic part of a human being. They do not believe that the soul will exist in the long run independent of something like a body. (Some Christians do believe in an "intermediate state" between death and the final judgement. During this period, souls may temporarily exist without a body.)
Why do Christians
Most of this document is a review of the kinds of evidence that Christians typically look to for their beliefs. The second section is more technical. It deals with the role of tradition and the Bible in the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox branches of Christianity. This is important if you want to understand the way Christians make decisions, and the differences among the three major streams of Christian thought. It is not so important to someone who simply wants to know why people might believe in Christianity in the first place.
Christians consider Christianity to be a "revealed" religion. Various Christian traditions differ in how much they believe it is possible to know about God without some special revelation from him. But all agree that we wouldn't have these beliefs unless God had taken actions to reveal himself to us.
Revelation in History
Revelation occurs in several ways: through events in history, through messages given through specific people, and through God's influence guiding his people in their choices.
The most visible kind of revelation involves historical events. In ancient Israel these include helping the Jews escape from captivity in Egypt, revealing laws to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and both the victories and defeats of the nation Israel. At the foundation of Christianity, key historical events center on Jesus' life: his miraculous birth, the various things he did during his life, his death and resurrection.
Revelation may also take the form of God inspiring people to speak for him. In Israel these people were called "prophets". Note that a prophet isn't primarily someone who predicts the future, although often they did. Rather, his primary responsibility is to interpret events, and to deliver messages from God.
The Bible and History
Christianity is to a large extent extent dependent upon historical events: Its idea of God is based on how God dealt with ancient Israel, on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, and to some extent on later happenings among Jesus' followers. Being a Christian means (for most of us) being convinced that there really is a God who guided Israel through much of its history, that Jesus really represents him, and that Jesus was really resurrected.
The account of this revelation is contained in the Bible. The Bible is a collection of documents, including history, legends, poetry, letters, and prophecy. The first portion of the Bible is also used by Jews. Christians refer to it as the "Old Testament". It contains documents from pre-Christian Judaism. There are slight disagreements among Christians in which documents are included in this section. They correspond to different Jewish usage in Palestine and Greek-speaking areas. The second portion of the Bible contains narrative and letters from Jesus' first-century followers. The Bible contains quite a variety of writing, ranging from love poetry to laws. However its focus is on the story of God's relationship with Israel, on Jesus' life and teachings, and on the way the earliest Christians put them into practice.
For this reason discussions about the truth of Christianity often turn into discussions of the historical credibility of the Bible. There are other issues, of course. They include items such as the logical coherence of the idea of God, various traditional "proofs" of the existence of God, whether the Christian diagnosis of the human predicament looks right, and whether God dying for us is a plausible way out of that predicament.
Guidance of the Christian Community
Revelation may take the form of God guiding the community in its decisions.
All Christians believe that God guides the community in its decisions. However the extent to which this can be said to constitute real revelation is somewhat controversial. All agree that the immediate followers of Jesus, the "Apostles", have a special position. They were taught by Jesus himself, and Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide them. Paul is counted as an Apostle even though he wasn't with Jesus during his ministry. Jesus appeared to him directly and commissioned him.
The New Testament writings were accepted by the early church as having the authority of the Apostles. This doesn't mean that they wrote all the documents themselves. In a number of cases it appears that Gospels, and possibly letters, were written by the next generation of Christians to record what the Apostles taught. For example, the Gospel of Mark was thought to record Peter's teachings, although he didn't actually write it.
All Christians believe that God provided special guidance to the Church during this early period, as it sorted out and recorded Jesus' teachings, the account of his life, and the basic principles for putting his teachings into practice.
In addition to this, the Catholic and Orthodox traditions (which of course cover most of Christianity through most of its history) also believe that the decisions of the Christian community throughout history have been guided by God to the extent that this may be said to constitute revelation. For example, the councils of the 4th and 5th Centuries, which formulated the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, were guided by God in doing this. (Note however that these doctrines were not invented in the 4th and 5th Centuries. The ideas can be seen much earlier, including the New Testament.)
The writings of early Christian leaders ("the Church Fathers") play a particularly important role here. Catholics and Orthodox believe that the living tradition passed on from the Apostles to their successors contains insights in addition to what are recorded in the Bible. In particular, this living tradition contains the way the early Church interpreted the Bible. Many Protestants also consider the Fathers an important source of guidance on interpretation, but they do not give them the same weight as the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
There is a more complete discussion of these topics at the end of this document, in the sections on Tradition and the role of Scripture in the Protestant Tradition.
The Evidence: Historical
Individual Christians consider different kinds of evidence important. Not all of the evidence is of the sort that would be acceptable to a scientist or historian.
Certainly historical evidence is important to many people. Because Christianity is founded on God's actions in history, it is important for the Biblical accounts to be seen as consistent with archaeological evidence and any other cross-checks that can be made.
Unfortunately the most critical events can't be cross-checked. We don't have the Egyptians' records of being drowned in the Red Sea (no surprise -- ancient chronicles normally don't record defeats), nor do we have the Roman or Jewish records of Jesus' trial and the subsequent events. Thus we end up assessing the Biblical records somewhat as we would eye-witness testimony: in terms of its plausibility, whether it is the sort of thing someone would make up, etc. (Note that I am not saying that the Biblical accounts actually are eye-witness testimony. The accounts of Jesus' life appear to have been written by immediate followers of the Apostles. It is likely that they are based on information from the Apostles, but the actual authors are not witnesses.)
There is a large literature doing both of these kinds of evaluations. You'll find some of it at net sites devoted to what is called "apologetics", i.e. to justifying Christianity. Unfortunately it can be difficult from the outsider to tell what is reliable and what is self-serving. The issue is complicated by the fact that scholars within the Christian community sometimes have radical views, which would undermine many of the contents of Christianity.
My personal evaluation of the situation is that the objective evidence checks out about as well as one would expect. Archaeology changes surprisingly fast: while it is based on physical evidence, evaluating that evidence has a surprisingly large subjective component. You will find archaeologists who maintain that none of the events described in the Bible took place or could have taken place.
However I believe that the preponderance of the evidence says that the Old Testament is as reliable an account as any other chronicle from the time, and probably more so than is usual. The normal chronicles were made for a king, and thus tended to omit embarrassing events and exaggerate victories. This is not such a problem for the Bible: they saw defeats as signs of God disciplining his people. Thus they were in a position to face historical events somewhat more honestly.
Similarly, my reading of the New Testament is that the authors were honestly reporting what they believed, and that they were close enough to the events for the results to be reasonably accurate. That does not mean that I think they were perfect. There are many Christians who believe it is important to be able to show that the Bible is perfect. I don't accept that. But I think the kinds of variations we see in different accounts are about what you would expect from people writing several decades after the events, with access to at least some information going back to the participants.
The Evidence: Intellectual
A second consideration that is important to many people is what I would call intellectual evidence. One traditional form is the "proof of God's existence". The validity of these proofs is controversial. There are some competent philosophers who believe that there are sound proofs. However I think they are best interpreted as plausibility arguments, not actual proofs.
If you are interested in this sort of thing, Kreeft and Tacelli's "Handbook of Christian Apologetics" has a good listing of the various proofs, with some evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses. I confess to a total incompetence in philosophy. It all looks like smoke and mirrors to me. Since other smart people seem to think there's something to them, the safest thing for me is simply to note that they exist, and refer you to other sources.
The second kind of intellectual issue is the coherence of the major doctrines, such as the Incarnation and the Trinity. A number of people, including a few within Christianity, believe that the the basic Christian concepts are incoherent. Depending upon the person, this may include the idea of a God, or specific doctrines such as the Trinity. Attacks on the possibility of God tend to depend upon philosophy. Thus I find them as incomprehensible as the proofs. My impression is that they have been properly answered, but you shouldn't rely on me for that.
I am more competent to assess the classical doctrines. I believe that the Trinity and Incarnation are both coherent. Unfortunately many explanations you will find from Christians are not (coherent, that is). I try to outline my understanding of them in other essays here. There are more detailed defenses against specific attacks in the FAQ section of the S.R.C. archives, and in the section containing documents I have written.
The Evidence: Personal
In addition to this sort of objective evidence, there is an obvious subjective component to evaluating Christianity. In the end, someone is not likely to become a Christian unless they find that it makes sense from a personal point of view. That is, a person should not become a Christian unless they become convinced that they addicted to sin, and require rescue.
Of course one does not normally reach that point without initially starting to examine Christianity for some other reason. I've recently read a study of why Christianity spread in the Roman empire. It appears that people became Christians because Christianity was attractive. Christians showed that they loved and cared for each other and those around them in a way that was apparently unusual for the time. There was a "power" in Christian lives that appeared to be beyond the merely human.
For most Christians, I believe the most important evidence for Christianity is this impression of being involved in something that goes beyond the merely human. For different people, different aspects of Christianity have the most weight:
For some, the history of Israel and Jesus' life seem to show people being moved in directions that it does not appear they could reasonably have discovered for themselves.
Others see a power at work in their own lives, helping them out in situations which would otherwise be hopeless.
For many, the Christian community seems to embody a spirit that is available nowhere else. For many, this spirit is particularly experienced in Christian worship.
2. TRADITION AND SCRIPTURE
The Role of Tradition in the Church
In principle, all important beliefs were known to the Apostles. Thus later revelation primarily takes the form of guiding the Church in its application of those ideas to new problems, and in developing their consequences. In the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, the Church (i.e. the community of believers) are considered to be protected by God against serious, prolonged error. Thus the Church can make decisions that are infallible.
For Catholics, decisions of the Church can sometimes have substantially new content. These are regarded as developments from the original "apostolic deposit of faith" (the ideas revealed to the apostles), but the developments may not be obvious ones. The clearest examples probably involve the role of Mary.
This results in somewhat different concepts of "tradition", which some recent church historians have called "Tradition 1" and "Tradition 2". Tradition 1 limits tradition to interpretation and application of ideas known to the Apostles (and, from a practical point of view, present in the Bible). Tradition 2 allows for more development. Tradition 1 is held by the Orthodox, and in a somewhat weaker sense, by some Protestants. Tradition 2 seems to be a development of the medieval Catholic church, and was formalized by Trent for the Catholic church in the 16th Century. Some Protestants appear to hold to "Tradition 0", i.e. no role for tradition, though in practice almost no one actually acts on this basis.
In many cases, the Church makes decisions in "church councils". A council is a formal gathering of Christian leaders from around the world. For Catholics, it must be presided over by the Pope, or at least have his authority.
Most Christians accept the authority of roughly the first four "ecumenical councils". ("ecumenical" means world-wide.) These include the councils that formulated the Trinity and the Incarnation. Protestants do not regard councils as having infallible status, but believe that the early councils did reasonably reliable work.
The Orthodox accept the authority of the ecumenical councils that met before the split between the Catholic and Orthodox (i.e. Western and Eastern) churches. Orthodox generally believe that it would be possible for them alone to hold a council, and it would have the authority of an ecumenical council. However they have not done so. For Orthodox, councils are accepted as ecumenical as the Church comes to acknowledge their decisions as reliable presentations of the unchanging Christian faith. This means that the "laity" (i.e. normal Christians, non-clergy) have an important, though informal, role in determining doctrine.
Catholics have continued to have councils, which they refer to as ecumenical even though no Orthodox or Protestants participated. The most recent was Vatican II.
The Catholic tradition tends to locate the infallibility of the Church more in the hierarchy (i.e. bishops and the Pope) than the Orthodox do. Papal infallibility is the clearest example of this tendency.
The concept of papal infallibility is often misunderstood. It does not mean that everything the Pope does is perfect. Many popes have been seriously flawed. Rather, the belief is that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in such a way that when the Pope makes certain solemn pronouncements in the areas of faith and morals, those pronouncements are infallible. The Pope has this role because he is the one who speaks for the Church as a whole.
This class of pronouncement is referred to as "ex cathedra" ("from the chair", i.e. the official bishop's throne). All Catholic scholars agree that there have been two infallible pronouncements. Many have longer lists, up to about 20 items. (Note that there is not an infallible list of infallible pronouncements.) These are in addition to documents produced by church councils. They may also be regarded as infallible. But they are not specifically based on exercise of papal infallibility.
The Authority of the Bible in the Protestant tradition
The Protestant tradition does not accept developments unless they can be traced directly to the Bible. This is referred to as the doctrine of "sola scriptura", i.e. "the Bible alone". This is intended as protection against "drift" -- picking up ideas from the surrounding culture or from popular superstition. The Bible acts as a standard that can always be used to check any suspicious development.
Here's a brief justification for why one might give the Bible this role: Christianity claims to be a revealed religion. Furthermore, it claims that this revelation is "public". That is, it comes from events such as the Exodus and Jesus' life, which were visible to the entire community and are accessible via history. I believe we can argue that the Bible is the only primary or near-primary source we have for these events of public revelation.
I think many Protestants would agree that in the first Century, one could get as good a picture of Jesus' life and teachings from hearing the Apostles speak personally, or even those who had known the Apostles. Certainly it is possible in principle that material not present in the Bible was passed on by word of mouth. But there is a limit to how long this may plausibly continue. Do we really believe that there is some key piece of the public revelation that has been passed down secretly from bishop to bishop, and will surface only in the 20th Cent? Through the period of the Borgia popes? I doubt that anyone would seriously claim that.
I'm not sure how long I'm prepared to allow for, but when something first turns up in the 3rd Cent, and then among Gnostics, I do not find it very convincing that this thing is actually part of the original Apostolic message. (I'm thinking here of some of the Marian ideas.) There is a role for interpretation. However that's not what I'm talking about here. The basic Protestant claim is that the Bible is for all practical purposes identical with the public revelation.
In fact many early Christian writers believed that all major Christian teachings were contained in the Bible, and that doctrine must be based on it. (The FAQ on "sola scriptura" contains a long list of citations from the Fathers supporting this.) Thus in some sense "sola scriptura" could be regarded as a traditional Christian view.
However the early writers also accepted the Church's authority to interpret the Bible, and believed that it would do so correctly. The Reformation of the 16th Century was based on the perception that the Church had gone astray, and that many of its interpretations of the Bible were implausible and false. When the Bible is turned against tradition, the concept of "sola scriptura" takes on a different nature.
There are, of course, issues that are not dealt with directly in the Bible. These include things such as details of how worship services are conducted. Protestants are expected to follow Biblical guidance where it is available, but they are free to make their own decisions within general Biblical principles on issues not dealt with specifically in the Bible. Such issues are referred to as "adiaphora" (indifferent).
The Bible is interpreted by the community as a whole. Individuals always have a right to demand that the community justify itself in Biblical terms, but individuals are not (in most groups) expected to develop their own private understanding. This means that the term "sola scriptura" can be somewhat misleading. It indicates clearly the fact that the Bible is the final standard. However it does not indicate the role of the community in interpreting the Bible. There is clearly a tension between the individual's responsibility for understanding the Bible himself, and the community's role.
This tension is seen by Protestants as a productive one: Tradition and the Bible support each other, and can be used as correctives for different kinds of danger. Tradition (and the community in general) is used to guard against individuals going off the deep end with idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible. The Bible is used to call the community back if it goes adrift. Catholics believe that the second kind of corrective is not needed, because the Holy Spirit will always prevent the community from going seriously adrift.
Different Protestants groups tend to deal with this tension in slightly different ways. The Lutheran and Reformed traditions are "confessional", meaning that there are theological standards for the church as a whole, referred to as "confessions of faith". Baptist and most of the traditions that developed in the United States emphasize more strongly the freedom and responsibility of individuals to deal directly with the Bible. In some of these groups the term "tradition" is a dirty word. However in most of them, the community does still have some de facto role in helping individuals avoid idiosyncrasy.
Note that we have a spectrum, with Catholics on one end and Baptists on the other. (I'm using Baptists as stand-ins for the majority of Protestants: those who are outside the confessional churches.) The confessional churches are in the middle.
• The Catholic end emphasizes the value of tradition, believing that the Church can never go astray for a prolonged period on essential matters.
• The Baptist end emphasizes the role of the Bible, believing in the responsibility and freedom of individual believers to confront the Word of God personally.
• The confessional churches accept the role of both tradition and the Bible. They use tradition to restrain individuals from idiosyncrasy, and the Bible to prevent tradition from drifting in the direction of the culture or popular superstition. The Bible has priority. That's the only way it can be used to judge tradition.
The Interpretation of Scripture
Because the Bible is authoritative for Protestants, it becomes important to understand how it is interpreted. Classical Protestantism holds to several basic principles involving the Bible:
• The Bible is inspired.
• The Bible is infallible.
• The Bible is to be interpreted according to its plain sense.
• The Bible interprets itself.
• The Bible is clear on all matters essential to salvation.
All of these claims have become the subject of great controversy in the 20th Century.
The traditional concept is that God inspired the authors of the Bible in such a way that God is responsible for the contents. Most people agree that this does not eliminate the human role. Different books have different styles and perspectives. However the contents are still God's word to us.
Since the Enlightenment the traditional view has come under attack. Some Christians believe that the Bible contains inconsistencies, and that it contradicts both science and history in a few places. The inconsistencies range from disagreements amount numbers in parallel passages, to apparent doctrinal differences. The best-known scientific problem concerns the creation accounts. If taken as face value, these appear to contradict the current scientific understanding of origins.
There are certainly intelligent Christians who believe that all of these problems can be dealt with. Thus they continue to maintain a strong view of inspiration, and a fairly literal view of infallibility. While many scholars in both the Protestant and Catholic communities regard this position as untenable, it is continues to be the official view in conservative Protestant groups, and has a surprisingly large following among ordinary members even in liberal denominations.
Some qualifications can be made without wholly abandoning the classic Protestant perspective. For example, Calvin suggested (following Augustine) that God "accommodated" his descriptions to human understanding. Thus the creation account was expressed in terms that people at the time would understand, and should not be taken as a complete, scientific description. Following this sort of understanding, many Christians believe that the 7 days of Genesis 1 do not need to be understood as a literal 7 24-hour days. Many Christians believe that it is possible to accept current scientific accounts of creation and evolution, without rejecting the inspiration of the Bible or its doctrinal authority. However this approach is hotly contested by more conservative Protestants.
It also appears that Calvin was not bothered by minor inconsistencies such as the numerical disagreements. He tended to shrug those off as being beside the point. Some Christians believe that the point of the Bible is to tell us about God's acts, and that it is sufficient if the writers were simply accurate human witnesses. Thus minor disagreements are to be expected, just as they are in any accounts that have passed through human hands. Others maintain that the Bible is God's Word, and that God does not lie. Thus all apparent inconsistencies must have an explanation.
In some cases the explanation may be textual corruption. Those who believe in complete inerrancy generally hold that the original manuscripts were inerrant. It is clear to everyone that the copies we have now have gone through many generations of scribes. They sometimes made copying errors. Thus if one book reports 600 people as being involved in an event and another 6000 people, that is probably a simple copying error.
Now we come to issues of interpretation. The Reformers believed that there was a "plain sense" to Scripture, and that this is clear on all matters essential to salvation. You will hear conservatives saying that they interpret scripture "literally". I use the term "plain sense", because I think it captures the actual approach more accurately. Plain sense means that we look at the meaning of the original languages in the original context, and look at what the authors would reasonably have expected their readers to understand. In simple narratives this is typically a fairly literal meaning. But the Bible certainly contains poetry, metaphors, etc. When Jesus says he is the "door for the sheep", we understand that he isn't saying he is made of wood.
Because knowledge of the original language and historical context is important, Protestants have always encouraged scholarship into the Biblical languages, history, and other related disciplines.
The Reformers acknowledged that the Bible was unclear in some places. However they still believed that the key message God intended to give us was clear. They dealt with problems in several ways. One was the principle that the Bible interprets itself. By this they mean that an unclear passage should be interpreted in the light of other passages that are clearer. Thus the best Biblical exposition does not deal with isolated verses. It is based on study of the whole message and approach of each of the books, as well as studies of how major themes and key words are handled throughout the Bible. This kind of work often allows us to clarify the meaning of passages that would otherwise be mysterious.
In my opinion, much of the disagreement over Biblical interpretation comes from trying to get answers to questions that aren't answered explicitly. For example, the Bible does not tell us whether or not infants are to be baptized. The Bible says many things that are relevant to discussions of this issue, but it does not contain a direct answer to the question. Thus the fact that Protestants don't agree on this issue should not be used to cast doubt on the clarity of Scripture. I believe there is enough information in the Bible about the relationship of children to God that we can make a reasonably reliable conclusion on this topic. However it is obvious that other well-informed Christians disagree with my conclusion. Fortunately, I do not believe that this matter is essential to salvation.
Unfortunately other disagreements in Biblical interpretation seem to result from people reading their own beliefs into the Biblical text. As an example, one of the common items for discussion in soc.religion.christian is whether Christians need to worship on Saturday (the Sabbath). This is clearly answered, explicitly by Paul several places, and implicitly in Act 15. Similarly, it is clear enough what Paul's attitude towards homosexuality is.
There is one other issue that should be mentioned here, which is how we apply the Bible to our lives. When Christians say that they "take the Bible literally", they generally mean not only that they accept the Bible as infallible, and interpret it according to its plain sense. Normally they also mean that they carry out its teachings directly.
This claim is one of the most complex to deal with. The underlying question is whether any instructions in the Bible are "culturally relative", i.e. whether they were intended for the specific situation in the 1st Cent (or earlier times, for the Old Testament), or whether all instructions are intended to apply directly to us.
Most Christians agree that some instructions are intended for specific situations. However generally they are willing to accept such qualifications only when they are explicited stated. The hottest issue today involving this is homosexuality. While there are debates over the meaning of some of the passages referring to homosexual behavior, I think there is little question that Paul disapproves of it. The most plausible argument for accepting it is that the homosexuality Paul knew was unhealthy. It was often associated with pagan cults, and often involved abuse of minors. Christian homosexuals will try to argue that the relationships they intend are not what Paul was judging. Conservatives are not prepared to accept such qualifications.
The problem is that similar arguments are accepted in other areas. The New Testament is clear in its condemnation of tax collectors. Nowhere is it explicitly said that this is only because they are dishonest. Yet it is clear to most Christians that the New Testament attitude towards tax collectors does not necessarily apply to all employees of modern tax collection agencies. Similarly, Biblical condemnation against taking interest on loans is no longer seen as applicable.
I believe it is possible to resolve these kinds of problems. But their resolution is going to require looking beyond the passages cited. In dealing with homosexuality, one needs to look at the general Biblical treatment of sex and marriage, as well as the status for Christians of Old Testament rules about homosexual behavior. "Taking the Bible literally" is an oversimplification.