Originally seventeen of those bishops gathered at the council were unwilling to sign the Creed penned by the Council, and all but three of these were convinced to sign by the end. It is thus apparent that the Arians were a distinct minority among the bishops. Initially there was some resistance to the Nicene Creed, not because of what it said but because of how it said it. Many objected to the use of the word “homoousias” in an official document because it was not used in Scripture, despite their agreement with the meaning it conveyed.
The Council interrogated Arius using Scripture, only to find that he had a new way of interpreting every verse they brought before him. Finally, they used the argument that Arius’ view had to be wrong because it was new. Athanasius says, “But concerning matters of faith, they [the bishops assembled at Nicea] did not write: ‘It has been decided,’ but ‘Thus the Catholic Church believes.’ And thereupon confessed how they believed. This they did to show that their judgement was not of more recent origin, but was in fact of Apostolic times…” (Volume 1, Faith of the Early Fathers, p338). In this regard also, Athanasius askes rhetorically, “… how many fathers [in other words, the writings of the early Christians] can you cite for your phrases?” (Ibid, p325)
It must be concluded, then, that the controversy was between a great majority who held the belief that the doctrine expressed by the Nicene Creed was ancient and Apostolic, and a minority who believed that Arius’ new interpretation of the faith was correct .
The Word Homoousious
The bishops assembled at Nicea were careful to explain how they used the word, and what it meant. This is because it had been misused by Paul of Samosta. Regarding this unorthodox usage, St. Hilary and St. Basil say that it was said to be “unfit to describe the relation between the Father and the Son” at a council that met in Antioch (Ibid, p14). Apparently Paul of Samosta applied the word in a manner that implied division of nature, as several coins are from the same metal (Baker, p21).
The Role of Constantine
It has been suggested that because Constantine referred to the issue as “trifling” that he did not really understand it. Strangely, it is recorded in a letter by Eusebius of Caesarea that the Emperor suggested the key word “homoousious” that appears in the Nicene Creed. He says the Emperor explained the term as well, showing its difference from the heretical usage by Paul of Samosta. It has been speculated that the Emperor made his suggestion at the prompting of Hosius of Cordova, the Emperor’s advisor and a man who was persecuted under Maximian.
Constantine did play an important role at the Council. Eusebius of Caesarea reports that he played an key part in calming, convincing, and bringing all to agreement on contested points. The account of Eusebius fairly glows in regard to the Emperor, and he is portrayed as a key figure. It is nowhere suggested, however, that he was permitted to vote with the bishops nor that he used any form of force to obtain an outcome.
It may be that the eloquence and glory of the Emperor had sway with some, however it should be remembered that he did eventually (years after the Council) support the Arian party. A few years after the Council of Nicea, Arius discovered a new way to interpret the word “homoousius” that agreed with his doctrines. He then asked to be readmitted to communion, but the Church refused. Arius then appealed to the Emperor. Emperor Constantine’s favorite sister, Constantia, on her deathbed, implored Constantine to support Arius and he did so. A date was set for the forcing of the Church to readmit Arius, but while he was waiting for Constantine to arrive Arius stopped to relive himself and his bowels burst and he died. (See Arians of the 4th Century, Chapter III, Section II by John Henry Newman)
It is hard to imagine how a man who had supposedly argued with eloquence for the Nicene Creed and who supposedly formulated the key phrase and explained it would simply abandon it for a mere submission to the words and not the meaning of the Creed. It is also hard to imagine how the account of Eusebius can be reconciled to the Emperor’s apparent failure to grasp the issue apparent in his letter. It is also hard to imagine how a man who had been such a humble servant of the Church at Nicea would attempt to force the Church to accept his decisions at this later date. It seems reasonable on these grounds to suppose that Eusebius of Caesarea wrote a less than accurate account designed to give credit and flattery to the emperor.