One person that I believe played a large role in the shaping of history is Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus; better known as Constantine I or Constantine the Great. He was the Roman Emperor from 306 AD to 337 AD. Constantine is regarded as the first Christian Roman Emperor and had a great influence on the shaping of the Christian faith. Constantine’s rule is largely viewed as a turning point for the faith; some believe a turn for the good but others a turn for the worse. Regardless of your opinion about the effects Constantine had on the Christian Church those effects can still be seen today.
The first act of Constantine that had a significant impact on Christianity was the Edict of Milan. This Edict was developed by Constantine and Licinius in Milan during the year 313 AD. It declared that everyone including Christians should be able to follow whatever faith they may desire. This granted a significant amount of freedom to a struggling religion that had not yet recovered from persecutions suffered under Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian. Under this new found freedom the church developed in ways that it had never before been allowed to develop. Constantine supported the church financially, he gave them property and built buildings, he afforded privileges to the clergy, and some suggest that he even influenced the forming of the clergy itself.
Under the reign of Constantine some of the defining moments of Christianity took place. He ordered a council to be held in Nicaea in the year 325 AD to settle the Arian controversy, which would lead to the Nicene Creed that would define the orthodox Christian faith. Some say that he is responsible at least in part, through the ordering of fifty bibles for use in Constantinople in 331, to the developing of cannon lists that would lead to the modern biblical cannon.
There are several other areas of the developing church that it is possible that Constantine had a strong influence. One thing that may have been influenced by Constantine is the actual church building. It was Constantine that is responsible for building the first buildings specifically for Christian worship. Another area that Constantine may have provided influence in the church is the organization of the church. It has been suggested that it was Constantine that first divided the church into districts that were called diocese which followed the pattern of the Roman regional districts. The major thing that Constantine is sometimes credited with concerning the Christian religion is the institutionalizing or mainlining of the religion and the church. Before Constantine, Christianity was practiced largely behind closed doors and in the homes of its adherents. After Constantine, Christianity became a state religion protected by emperors. The marriage of the Christian church to the state would be a lasting one. Throughout all of history, since the time of Constantine, Christianity of one form or another has been a state religion somewhere in the world.
What would the Christian faith look like had Constantine not come into power? This is a very tough question to answer. Who’s to say that the course that Christianity has taken was an inevitable one that would look largely the same today without Constantine’s influence. I have to believe that it would not. Under the freedom that Constantine afforded, Christianity spread like it never had until that point. If Constantine had not been in power the Christian faith may have never gained the support of the Roman Empire and never spread around the world like it did with the Empire’s help. If Christianity had not become the state religion of the Roman Empire it could even be speculated that the Empire itself would not have been as far reaching or as long lasting as it was with the help of Christianity. Perhaps the Christian faith would have never been used as a weapon to dominate other peoples. Perhaps many wars would have never been fought and many lives would not have been wrongly taken in the name of Christ.
Constantine’s influence is one that is still visible in the organization and function of the institutional church today. Perhaps the church would look nothing like it does today. After all, the vast majority of all institutional church services still look strikingly similar to the model of worship that was cemented into history during the reign of Constantine. Perhaps the clergy would have never developed into a separate class of Christian and never been afforded so much privilege that it has enjoyed during the course of history. Perhaps Christianity would never have developed the taste for power and wealth that it has grown to love throughout the centuries. Maybe it would never have been accepted as a valid religion separate from Judaism at all? All that we can do today is guess and speculate about where Christianity would be without the presence of Constantine at such a critical point in its existence. However I think that it can be safely said that without Constantine, Christianity would have experienced a much different path than the one that it has experienced up until today.