The Wikipedia article on the Second Council of Constantinople (the fifth Ecumenical Council) claims that Lutherans and Calvinists accept only the first four Ecumenical Councils as being canonical.

My question is really two fold, and directed separately towards Lutherans and Calvinists.

  1. Is the above claim true?
  2. If so, which specific canons of the Second Council of Constantinople are rejected and why?

I realize that I may be at risk of overgeneralizing "Calvinists", since perhaps there are disparate beliefs among different Calvinist denominations. If so, perhaps someone could answer the question(s) from their own denomination's perspective. I don't expect the same possibility of divergence among Lutherans, but perhaps I am in error here.


The First Four Councils

The main, but only the main, conclusions of each of the first four Ecumenical Councils were specifically endorsed by both Calvin and Luther personally. These 4 councils are also mentioned by name in the (Calvinist) Second Helvetican Confession, Chapter 11 . The doctrines themselves are also in the Westminster Confession chapters 2 and 8, and the (Lutheran) AugsburgConfession Articles 1 and 3, amongst others.

Endorsing only the first four seems to imply there must have been some objection to the fifth. We may imagine Luther, in his Wittenberg study, going through the Councils in order and saying: Nicea, ok; First Constantinople , ok; Ephesus, ok, Chalcedon, ok; Second Constantinople, uh-oh, don't like this one.

But that would be a misunderstanding. The first four were particularly mentioned because of the great importance of the doctrines to which they bore witness. Pope Gregory the Great, who lived after the fifth Council, but before the sixth,wrote that he received and revered the first four Councils as he did the four gospels. He went on to say he also revered the fifth Council. It wasn't that Gregory had anything against the fifth, but it just wasn't, to him, such a big deal, doctrinally, as the first four. In this, Luther and Calvin concurred with him.

Furthermore, the Assyrian (Nestorian) Church accept only the first two Councils, objecting to the third; and the Oriental Orthodox (e.g. Coptic, not to be confused with Eastern Orthodox) accept the first three, objecting to the fourth. In accepting four the Reformers demonstrated their Catholicity in contrast to these groups.


Luther wrote On the Councils and the Church in 1539. In it he summed up the doctrines of the first four as follows.

The first, at Nicaea, defended the deity of Christ against Arius; the second, at Constantinople, defended the deity of the Holy Ghost against Macedonius; the third, at Ephesus, defended the one Person of Christ against Nestorius; the fourth, at Chalcedon, defended the two natures in Christ against Eutyches: — but they did not thereby establish any new article of faith. For these four articles are established far more abundantly and powerfully in St. John’s Gospel alone, even though the other evangelists and St. Paul and St. Peter had written nothing about them, though all these, together with the prophets, teach them and testify mightily to them.

Luther was adamant that these doctrines of these councils were fully proved in Scripture, and believed for that reason only. The Councils, per se, added nothing. It is convenient to refer to the doctrines by the names of the Councils, but they are not accepted merely by authority of the councils. At all councils there were bad mixed with good," like mouse-droppings in the pepper", as he put it. In any case, he said, he would "rather drink from the spring than the brook", by which he meant Scripture rather than Council.

Luther drew a distinction between the chief subject of a Council, that is the purpose for which the Emperor had called it, and the other matters it might take it upon itself to consider. He was quite scathing about most of the decrees of the even the first Ecumenical Council, that of Nicea.

The greater part of them is merely priests’ quarrelling : — there are not to be two bishops in one city; no bishop of a small church is to be ambitious for a greater one; clerics, or servants of a church, are not to leave their own church and slip hither and thither among other churches; no one is to ordain the people of any bishop without his knowledge and consent; no bishop is to accept a man who has been expelled by another bishop; the bishop of Jerusalem is to retain his ancient privilege of dignity above others; and more of that kind of talk. Who can hold these things for articles of faith? What of them can one preach to the people in the Church? What difference do these things make to Church or people? Unless, of course, they are to be treated as a history from which one can learn that at that time, too, there were everywhere in the Church self-willed, wicked, disorderly bishops, priests, clergy, and people, who were more concerned about honours and power and wealth than about God and His kingdom, and that people needed to be on their guard against them.

Luther also ridiculed the Nicean canons on military service (12) and priestly castration (1). So it is clear that Luther did not regard any of the Ecumenical Councils as binding or even correct except as regards specific points which were, anyway, in the Bible, and accepted on that account alone.

In fact Luther goes further back, to the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 . The chief subject was whether Gentile Christians must obey the Mosaic Law. The decision: no. But to this was added a stipulation, proposed by James, about abstaining from blood. If people were to take that seriously, Luther pointed out, nobody would eat blutwurst. Since a ban on German sausages was so patently preposterous, it proved that the peripheral decrees of councils, even of the apostles never mind later bishops, could not to be taken seriously as having any permanent relevance. (Luther also moved James' epistle towards the back of German Bibles, but gave reasons unconnected with sausages.)


Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 9, addresses "Councils and their Authority". In section 8 of this chapter he said of the four councils, and later ones:

Thus those ancient Councils of Nice, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedon, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. In some later councils, also, we see displayed a true zeal for religion, and moreover unequivocal marks of genius, learning, and prudence. But as matters usually become worse and worse, it is easy to see in more modern councils how much the Church gradually degenerated from the purity of that golden age

While praising the four he is very much opposed to the seventh, which condemned iconoclasm and mandated images in church. This Second Council of Nice (757) is condemned by Calvin in Book 1, Chapter 11, section 14 of the Institutes. He ridicules some of the arguments used by the Council in "the absurd defence of the worship of images", and quotes approvingly from a refutation of the seventh council said to have been written by Charlemagne.

Protestant Doctrinal Standards On Councils Generally

The Westminster Confession states in Chapter 31, article 4

All synods or councils, since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both

The first two articles of the Epitome of Concord in the Lutheran doctrinal standard say (abridged):

We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone. ..... Other writings, whatever name they bear, must not be regarded as equal to the Holy Scriptures, but all of them together be subjected to them, and should not be received otherwise or further than as witnesses.

Article 21 of the Church of England says

General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

So, to summarise, Protestants acknowledge the truth of the principal dogmas of the first four councils. They do not accord any power to any council to declare any doctrine by its own authority. They believe Councils can err, and have erred. Calvin, in particular, asserts that the Seventh Council erred.

The fifth and sixth, dealing with obscure and long-forgotten controversies of no particular interest, were simply not mentioned.

This was the position in the time of the Reformation.

Twentieth Century Lutheran/Orthodox Statements

In the latter half of the twentieth century a dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and representatives of the Eastern Orthodox churches resulted in a series of agreements.

The Seventh Joint Declaration, 1993, refers to all seven Ecumenical Councils accepted by the Eastern Orthodox. These are First Nicea, 325; First Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; Chalcedon, 451; Second Constantinople, 553; Third Constantinople, 680; and Second Nicea, 757. Paragraph 4 says the teachings of these Councils are normative for the Churches today.

Paragraph 5 includes the recognition that not all decisions on canonical matters have the same authority as the doctrinal decisions, and their reception and use in the Orthodox and Lutheran Churches differs.

Paragraph 6 says that the statements at the Councils went through a process of "reception" in the years after them, across the Church's life, worship, catechesis and service even when the councils were not explicitly named.

Paragraph 7 says that the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils are authoritative for both Lutherans and Orthodox, but goes on that the seventh was not part of the tradition received at the Reformation, and that it does not have the same significance for Lutherans as it does for Orthodox.

The Eighth Declaration in 1995 in paragraphs 5a and 5b, is perhaps clearer.

We agree on the doctrine of God the Holy Trinity, as formulated by the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, and on the doctrine of Christ formulated by the first four Ecumenical Councils. The Fathers of the four Councils rejected the Arian and Eunomian notion that the Logos, the Angel of the Great Council, was created before the ages, and insisted that the Logos is "homoousious to Patri". They also rejected the Nestorian notion that the One born of the Virgin Mary was not the Logos himself and that the Logos only dwelled in the One who was born of the Virgin Mary. In short, the Fathers of these Councils affirmed that he who was born of the Virgin Mary is God by nature and not just by the will of the Father, and that he became homoousious with us in his humanity. The union of the divine and human natures in the hypostasis of the Logos is, according to the Council of Chalcedon, "without confusion, without change, without division and without separation". The Ecumenical Councils which followed continued this teaching and applied it to new challenges to the faith.

It continues.

The Fifth accepted as orthodox two theological terminologies in the confession of the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Sixth affirmed the two natural wills and energies with their natural properties of the one person of the Logos incarnate. The Seventh drew conclusions from affirmation of the hypostatic union in Christ in order to confirm the veneration of icons. ..... We agree in these fundamental teachings.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this, for the purposes of this Question, is how very little there is to say about the Fifth Council, in comparison with the first four.

  • Very nice answer. I still don't understand or can't sympathize with the Protestant position in that it says it accepts the first 4 Councils, yet this is meaningless, really. It carries no weight if what is meant is that the Councils happened to state what Protestants have interpreted from Scripture to be true. But that wasn't the point of a Council. The point of the Council was not to put forward an interpretation of Scripture, but to state the orthodox position of the one Church of Chrich; the interpretation. Authoritatively. The very idea of a ecu. Council & sola scriptura are at odds Jul 28 '17 at 16:41
  • @SolaGratia: "It carries no weight if what is meant is that the Councils happened to state what Protestants have interpreted from Scripture to be true" - which Protestants would put as "what Protestants found as true by checking with the Scriptures." "The point of the Council was not to put forward an interpretation of Scripture but to state the orthodox position of the one Church of Christ" - which Protestants would put as "but to put forward their interpretation of the position of the one Church of Christ"
    – brilliant
    May 12 '18 at 15:04
  • @brilliant Yes, my point exactly: Protestants accept only what they already agree with, so there is no point in convening a Council to begin with. Which is why I said it contradicts the idea of sola scriptura (at least the 'perspicuous' part). May 12 '18 at 21:32
  • @SolaGratia: "Which is why I said it contradicts the idea of sola scriptura" - How does it contradict the idea of Sola Scriptura???
    – brilliant
    May 12 '18 at 22:38
  • Maybe you're confused or I haven't been clear, but when I say 'there's no point' I mean no point in Protestants convening Councils, since they have no binding power either on Protestants or non-Protestants. They are always overruled by Scripture, which stands for the particluar interpretation thereof held to by either side. Whereas the historical point in convening a Council was to settle disputes authoritatively, with the authority proper to Councils, not stating your interpretation of Scripture louder or more publically. May 13 '18 at 12:49

"Some Protestants, such as Calvinists and Lutherans, recognize the first four councils"

Answer to question 1: Is the above claim true?

The answer to your first question is a no.

As a precursor to my answer, I will state that: This Wikipedia claim is very loose, generalized and not specific enough. If the Wikipedia statement was more detailed and had more depth, this question may not have been risen.

Your question is based on the following wiki statement.

"Some Protestants, such as Calvinists and Lutherans, recognize the first four councils"

The word "recognize" leaves a huge gap in details. Just what does "recognize" mean?

I give the answer to your first question no, because I don't know of any protestant denomination that "recognize" the first four councils.

The Wiki statement does not read. "Some Protestants, such as Calvinists and Lutherans, recognize the first four councils existed"


"Some Protestants, such as Calvinists and Lutherans, agree with some cannons of the first four councils"


"Some Protestants, such as Calvinists and Lutherans, follow some cannons of the first four councils"


"Some Protestants, such as Calvinists and Lutherans, recognize and agree with parts of the first four councils"

Any of the above statements would have been more accurate, detailed and logical than just saying "recognize" in general.

My perspective and understanding is the following.

To "recognize" a council or a ruling is to accept it's validity. And in most cases to follow it's validity and or at least believe it's validity and the contents there of.

One can recognize a person they had met previously, or recognize in the sense of acknowledgement, but to recognize a council, cannons, rulings etc, is a different context for the word.

I'll give a strong analogy: If a U.S State, claims they recognize a Supreme Court ruling, that means they will be following it.

Lets abstract some things here. Do some Protestant groups say they agree with the definition of the Trinity in the creed? Of course, however believing in a section of a Creed does not quantify the statement that they recognize the first four councils. That is just a small section of the creed. Also there were more issues than just the creed addressed, even in the first council.

Pascha dates were addressed. Do Lutherans or any Protestants either follow,adhere or recognize the dates set about?

The day/celebration of Pentecost was addressed. Do Lutherans or Protestants either follow,adhere or recognize the dates set about?

Do Lutherans recognize the following section of the Creed? "And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

It's not logically possible. Rome and the Orthodox both claim to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and Lutherans are not in communion with either, nor do they make this claim.

Footnote: Keep in mind that the word "Catholic" here does not mean Roman. Catholic means "Universal" or "Whole", and at the time of the Creed the Church was united. That is to say Rome was still united with Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antoich and Constantinople. The writings of Ignatius and all other fathers of the Church clearly state there is only One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Not two or three. Thus one of the reasons for Nicean council, to "keep" the Church one. I will also mention Orthodox, in many of the ancient writings does not mean Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Constantinople without Rome. Orthodox is Greek for Ortho=True , DOX / DOXY = Teaching (True Teaching). Although today the Roman Church calls themselves Catholic and the other four call themselves Orthodox. Both of these words were used in ancient times when the Church was one. Even Pope Leo III from Rome uses the word Orthodox on the shields he had commissioned before Peter and Paul's tombs, when he was attempting to defend the Western side of the Church from Charlemagne.

To validate my answer through an historical event, lets look at Lutheran history. How could they recognize the first four councils, when at one they they tried to rejoin the East, only to go there on way and reject. It's not logical to say the recognize the first four, attempt to re-unite with the Orthodox East and then go their on way.

Very few people know or realize that the Lutherans, 70 years after the movement began, turn to the East in an attempt to re-unite to the Eastern Orthodox Church (Keepers of all the councils and cannons). Letters were written back and forth from the Lutherans to Jeremiah II, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople at that time. These letters, correspondence between the Lutherans and the Orthodox Church are fully documented in the following book.

Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence between the Tubingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg Confession by George Mastrantonis Link: https://amzn.com/0916586820

This is a great resource for your question. The Lutherans have a earnest desire to re-unite to the East. There is no mention of agreeing with a particular cannon and not another. However, the Lutheran's do bring their own personal statement of faith into the mix. Jeremiah II in a loving, but profound, deep understanding declares that the Faith, as understood by The Church and Apostles, can not be changed. He states it has never been changed, only defended and although he want's the Lutheran's to re-unite, he or nobody can except a statement of faith that would add to The Faith. (For those who have studied the councils, all of this will make perfect sense.) If the Lutherans were so against a particular cannon or council, why would they earnestly try to re-unite with the Orthodox Church in the East? The keeper of all the cannons and councils. There is a logical fallacy here. (Footnote: Rome took part in all of the seven ecumenical councils, The seven Ecumenical councils were before the Great Schism of 1054 AD.) The inability to re-unite, as the letters and history shows, has more to do with the Lutherans being self willed than agreeing on some of the cannons or councils, but not others. The content of the letters themselves, prove this. Now having said all above, if any contemporary literature exists from the Lutherans that except some and denounce others, I have never heard of it. I'm glad to be corrected. Otherwise the wiki source is not explaining itself well, nor is as accurate as it should be, but a bad generalization.

As far as Protestant / more Calvinists leaning denominations go. Again, they may believe in a section of the creed about the Trinity, but I know of very few Calvinists associated protestant denominations / members, who know much detail of the councils, or in most cases that the ecumenical councils existed. This is not an assumption, but a hard fact of personal experience. This experience seems to persist around the U.S at least. If Calvinists associated denominations in Germany are well associated with the councils, that is another topic. Likewise, I don't know of any Calvinists associated protestant denominations who accept nor reject. It seems to be a matter of not knowing much about them. If any official documents made by these denominations exists that state as a denomination we accept this one and not that one, I have never heard of it.

Roughly there is a 500 year section of history that divided all Protestants from the Ecumenical councils, and that is the Great Schism and Rome in the West. Most Calvinists know about Protestant history,a little about Roman Catholicism, but very little about the Orthodox Church, the only keeper of all of the seven ecumenical councils.

I will summarize by saying again that the Wikipedia article is loose, not as detailed as it should be and in some cases is just incorrect regarding any relationships dealing with the councils and Protestant denominations.

Answer to question 2: If so, which specific canons of the Second Council of Constantinople are rejected and why?

Unless someone can answer this question with specific documentation, the answer seems to stand that no official documentation exists. I do not know of any official documents from any Protestant denomination that says they accept any or even one council and or their cannons. That's not to say you will not find Lutherans who will say they "agree" with the creed, or a general ideology that one group may loosely agree with certain sections or beliefs from the councils. However my answer address your question within the Wiki statement. The Wiki statements claims some recognize the councils and to this I do not no of any documentation nor evidence of example.

  • I probably should have broken this up into two questions - one for Lutherans and the other for Calvinists.
    – user22553
    Jul 20 '16 at 23:49
  • I'm not sure I completely understand your answer. Are you saying that the answer to Question 1 is "No" because although Lutherans do accept the first four Ecumenical Council, Calvinists do not?
    – user22553
    Jul 20 '16 at 23:50
  • Thank you for your comment, I can see how my answer could be revised. I will do so now.
    – Frank
    Jul 21 '16 at 16:20
  • Thanks. I didn't down vote your answer by the way.
    – user22553
    Jul 21 '16 at 16:36
  • "Do Lutherans recognize the following section of the Creed? "And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."" While I cannot speak for Lutherans specifically, Protestant churches use this (or the slightly different translation of "I believe in a holy, catholic church") without any lack of logic. Catholic means universal, and is not in particular reference to the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly, Protestant churches believe in a holy, universal, apostolic church universal.
    – Birdie
    Aug 19 '16 at 2:34

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