Continuing with the account of Gardiner’s conversion, we quote the following: “When engaged in serious meditation on a Sabbath night in July 1719, Gardiner suddenly thought he saw an unusual blaze of light fall on the book while he was reading, which he at first imagined might have happened by some accident in the candle. But lifting up his eyes, he apprehended, to his extreme amazement, that there was before him, as it were suspended in the air, a visible representation of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, surrounded with a glory; and was impressed as if a voice, or something equivalent to a voice, had come to him, to this effect: ‘O sinner, did I suffer this for thee, and are these the returns?’ After this event he changed from a dissolute worldling to an earnest and godly man. But the whole apparition was probably, after all, merely an inward one. For the report adds as to the voice: “Whether this were an audible voice, or only a strong impression on his mind, equally striking, he did not seem confident, though he judged it to be the former. He thought he was awake. But everybody knows how easy it is towards midnight to fall into a doze over a dull or even a good book. It is very probable then that this apparition revolves itself into a significant dream which marked an epoch in his life.”—thus far the account in the life of Gardiner.
We now proceed with Schaff’s discussion of the “sign of the cross” which appeared to Constantine upon the eve of his important victory at the Milvian Bridge: “The facts, therefore, may have been these. Before the battle Constantine, leaning already towards Christianity as probably the best and most hopeful of the various religions, seriously sought in prayer, as he related to Eusebius, the assistance of the God of the Christians, while his heathen antagonist Maxentius, according to Zosimus, was consulting the sibylline books and offering sacrifice to the idols. Filled with mingled fears and hopes about the issue of the conflict, he fell asleep and saw in a dream the sign of the cross of Christ with a significant inscription and promise of victory. Being already familiar with the general use of this sign among the numerous Christians of the empire, many of whom no doubt were in his own army, he constructed the labarum, or rather he changed the heathen labarum into a standard of the Christian cross with the Greek monogram of Christ, which he had also put upon the shields of the soldiers. To this cross-standard, which now took the place of the Roman eagles, he attributed the decisive victory over the heathen Maxentius.—end of quote. This labarum, by the way, was a heathen symbol, consisting of a long spear overlaid with gold, and a crosspiece of wood, from which hung a square flag of purple cloth embroidered and covered with precious stones. This symbol, then, appeared to Constantine in a dream, with the monogram of Christ (consisting of the first two letters of the name, Christ, in the form of a cross. This monogram, consisting of the first two letters of the name, Christ, was in use among the Christians long before Constantine, and therefore known to the emperor. This symbol, then, as appearing to Constantine in his dream, was interpreted by Constantine as the sign of the cross.
This quotation, I believe, explains itself. Schaff interprets the incident of the sign of the cross in the heavens as a subjective internal experience. Constantine had been friendly toward the Christians already for some time. He was certainly acquainted with the cross as the symbol and heart of Christianity. He was confronted by an army which far outnumbered his own. The excitement and tenseness of the moment may well have contributed toward a dream of this nature and which was experienced very vividly by the emperor. This does not deny the divine origin, of course, of this incident. All things, we know, are of the Lord. Also this was of the Lord and surely for the sake of His Church. The battle of the Milvian Bridge was certainly one of the most significant battles in history because of its far-reaching results. It led to the Edict of Milan of 313.
The battle of the Milvian Bridge was surely a turning point in the life of Constantine the Great. We will not discuss at this time the question whether the emperor was truly a Christian. We know that he committed acts of atrocity and cruelty during his reign as Constantine the Great. The possibility certainly exists that he may have embraced the Christian religion because he recognized that it was essential to the life and welfare of his empire. After all, heathenism had not been able to destroy it. Christianity was indeed a “growing thing.” Be this as it may, Constantine felt that he had won the victory over Maxentius because he had received help from the God of the Christians. Until now he had been a worshipper of the sungod, Mithrax. He now became a Christian, be it in a formal sense of the word. He renounced heathenism and embraced Christianity as the true religion. Hence, the battle of the Milvian Bridge not only made him master of the entire western part of the Roman Empire, but it also led to his becoming the first Christian emperor.
What is the Edict of Milan? This decree goes far beyond the decree of Galerius of 311. Whereas the latter simply granted the Christians permission to hold their assemblies again, the former placed Christianity upon a footing of equality before the law, equal with the other religions in the Empire. Hence, it did not merely tolerate Christianity but gave it equal rights before the law. It did not, therefore, set up Christianity as the only and official religion within the Empire. At the same time the church buildings and property which had been confiscated during the Diocletian persecution were ordered to be restored, and private property owners to be indemnified from the imperial treasury. This Decree of Milan surely marked a turning point in the history of the Church.
From this time Constantine decidedly favored the Church, although he did not persecute or forbid heathen religions. He always mentioned the Christian church with reverence in his imperial edicts, and uniformly applied to the Church the name of Catholic. He exempted the Christian clergy from military and municipal duty; he abolished various customs and ordinances offensive to the Christians; facilitated the emancipation of the Christian slaves; legalized bequests to catholic churches (we must not confuse this with the Roman Catholic Church of today); enjoined the civil observance of the Sunday, although not as a day of the Lord; contributed liberally to the building of churches and the support of the clergy; erased the heathen symbols of Jupiter and Apollo, Mars and Hercules from the imperial coins; and gave his sons a Christian education. When later Constantine became the sole head of the entire Roman Empire, including the eastern half, he came out with still greater decision. He now issued a general proclamation to his subjects to embrace the Christian religion, although he still left them to their own convictions. In the year, 325, as patron of the church, he summoned the Council of Nicaea; and himself attended it; banished the Arians although he later recalled them; and, in his monarchial spirit of uniformity, showed great zeal for the settlement of all theological disputes, while he was blind to their deep significance. He first introduced the practice of subscription to the articles of a written creed and of the infliction of civil punishment for non-conformity. In the years, 325-329, in connection with his mother, Helena, he erected magnificent churches on the sacred spots in Jerusalem. The emperor diligently attended divine worship, and is portrayed upon medals in the posture of prayer. He kept the Easter vigils with great devotion. He would stand during the longest sermons of his bishops who always surrounded him, and, unfortunately flattered him only too much. And, he himself even composed and delivered discourses to his court, in the Latin language, from which they were translated into Greek by interpreters appointed for that purpose. General invitations were issued, and the citizens flocked in great crowds to the palace to hear the imperial preacher, who would in vain try to prevent their loud applause by pointing to heaven as the source of his wisdom. He dwelt mainly on the truth of Christianity, the folly of idolatry, the unity and providence of God, the coming of Christ to judgment. He was baptized in the year, 337, in the sixty fifth year of his life, and died a few days later, on Pentecost, May 22, 337. His remains were removed in a golden coffin by a procession of distinguished civilians, and the whole army, from Nicomedia to Constantinople, and deposited, with the highest Christian, honors, in the church of the Apostles, which church became the burial place of the Byzantine (Constantinople) emperors, till in the fourth crusade the coffins were rifled and the bodies cast out. However, the Roman senate, after its ancient custom, proudly ignoring the great religious revolution of the age and the fact that heathenism and paganism had suffered a crushing defeat with the defeat of Maxentius and the accession of Constantine to the throne of emperor of the Roman Empire, boldly proceeded to enroll him among the gods of the heathen Olympus, and this in spite (of the fact) that they endorsed a religion which had been set aside by this Constantine and substituted by that of Christianity. From the fifth century he began to be recognized in the East as a saint; the Greek and Russian church to this day celebrates his memory under the extremely extravagant title of “Equal of the apostles.” The Latin church, on the contrary, with truer tact, has never placed him among the saints, but has been content with naming him “the Great,” in grateful remembrance of his services to the cause of Christianity and civilization. This is, in brief a summary of the significance of Constantine the Great. We cannot doubt that the title, “the Great,” is fitting with respect to this first Christian emperor. Whatever may be our appraisal of the man from the viewpoint of whether he was or was not a Christian, it is certainly true that he was used by the Lord to serve the interests of His Church in the midst of the world. And whatever may have been his motive when granting Christianity full and equal rights with other heathen religions, it is simply an undeniable fact that his famous Edict of Milan constitutes one of the turning points in the history of the Church of God. There had been other such turning points in the history of the Church. But the Edict of Milan certainly ranks in importance with other turning points which had preceded it. We do well to remember, however, that this turning point presently exposed the Church of God to a danger fully as great as any that had preceded it. When Christianity received rest from the attacks of the enemy without, this rest gave the enemy within an opportunity to attack the truth and to undermine the very foundations of the Church of God. And an attack from within is always fully as dangerous as from without. Be this as it may, Constantine’s influence upon the Church of God was indeed very great.