Here are some notes I recently made about the Nicene Council, largely taken from Roger Olson, “The Story of Christian Theology”, pp 151-157. It can be read here.
The Nicene Council was convened and presided over by Constantine, famous for not even being a Christian at the time. He placed his throne higher than the seating of the rest of the bishops as he conducted the council. He referred to himself in this meeting as the “bishop of bishops”. The council lasted about 2 months. There were 318 bishops in attendance, and 28 of those were clearly Arian from the outset. It is probable that the vast majority of the bishops had little knowledge of the issues they were discussing. For most of them it was the first time they had ever had to seriously deal with it. Historian Justo Gonzalez noted:
the vast majority [of the bishops] does not seem to have understood the importance of the matter at hand, and their fear of Sabellianism made them reluctant to condemn subordinationsim in very strong terms. Besides, the emporer, whose interest was in the unity of the Empire rather than the unity of God, was inclined to find a formula that would be acceptable to the greatest number of bishops possible.
The number of bishops already committed to Athanasian Trinitarianism is unknown, but likely not much more than the Arians present. Interestingly, Arius himself was not allowed to come. He was not a Bishop. To bring the significance of that closer to home, it would be like a bunch of Catholic bishops in the 1520′s debating Lutheranism without inviting Luther to come and defend himself.
They of course ended up penning the Nicene Creed. They introduced new words in order to get just the right result, but even that didn’t work. One of the biggest supporters of the word “homoousios” was Marcellus of Ancyra, a Sabellian (Modalist). The Modalists present at the council were perfectly happy with the end result, because the creed didn’t condemn their views and even seemed to support them.
Constatine, the president of the council, required all bishops to sign their names to the creed. If they did not, they would be deposed and exiled. That hardly amounts to a fair debate. Most of the Arians signed it, not because they agreed with it, but because they would rather remain safely at home with their families and friends than be exiled. Two Arians didnt’ sign it, Eusebius and Theognis. This was a great blow to the Emperor because they were both considered very important and influential.
That didn’t end the debate. Evangelical historian Roger Olson said,
“The final and definitive condemnation of Arianism that truly ‘stuck’ was at the Council of Constantinople in 381 [56 years later]. During the intervening half century, various Arian and semi-Arian bishops and emporers helped subordinationism [Arianism] make a comeback, and at times the entire Christian church seemed on the verge of rejecting the Trinity completely and establishing as orthodox doctrine something akin to what modern-day Jehovah’s Witness believe.”