Ten Basic Facts about the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize: #5: “The Four Gospels are Well Established by the End of the Second Century”
by Michael Kruger
Note: This is the fifth installment of a blog series announced here.
When it comes to basic facts about the NT canon that Christians should memorize, one of the most critical is the statement by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, around A.D. 180: “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more or fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principle winds… [and] the cherubim, too, were four-faced.”
Here Irenaeus not only affirms the canonicity the four gospels, but is keen to point out that only these four gospels are recognized by the church. Indeed, Irenaeus is so certain that the canon of the gospels is closed that he can argue that it is entrenched in the very structure of creation—four zones of the world, four principle winds, etc.
In an effort to minimize the implications of Irenaeus’ statement, some scholars have suggested that only Irenaeus held this view. He is thus portrayed as lonely, isolated, innovator who is trying to break into new and uncharted territory. This whole idea of a fourfold gospel, we are told, was invented by Irenaeus.
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But, does this Irenaeus-as-innovator approach fit the facts? Not really. There are several considerations that raise doubts about it:
1. Irenaeus’ own writings. When Irenaeus talks about the fourfold gospel in his writings, he gives no indication that he is presenting a new idea, or that he is asking the reader to consider a new concept. On the contrary, he speaks in a manner that assumes the reader knows and follows these same gospels. He speaks of them naturally and unapologetically. In short, Irenaeus does not write like a person advocating the scriptural status of these books for the first time…
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