Here’s the result of some recent research on Irenaeus and his views of the authority and canonicity of the Gospels.


The closure of the Gospel canon is of great interest to many and has enjoyed no small amount of attention. Irenaeus is of particular interest when treating this subject. He writes in Adv. Haer. 3.11.8: “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we are, and four principal winds. . . . The four living creatures [of Rev 4:9] symbolize the four Gospels. . . . and there were four principal covenants made with humanity, through Noah, Abraham, Moses and Christ.”

These comments, authored in approximately 180 AD, are the first extant defense for the authority of the four canonical gospels; and although there are differences in terms of its significance, most scholars tend to agree the with T. C. Skeat when he says that “every study of the Canon of the Four Gospels begins, and rightly begins, with the famous passage in which Irenaeus, writing about the year 185, seeks to defend the Canon by finding a mystical significance in the number four.”[1] On the significance of Irenaeus, Von Campenhausen asserts that the “transition from the earlier period of belief in tradition to the new age of deliberate canonical standardization—a transition in the direction of later orthodoxy in which the Canon of the Old and New Testament was firmly laid down.”[2]

This having been said, it is clear that Irenaeus’ pen left a definitive impact on the canon of the both the Gospels and the entire New Testament. However, what is less certain is the manner of the impact. In other words, what did Irenaeus’ comments mean at that time? Were his words a true indicator of formed and closed Gospel canon? Or did it mean something else? Metzger answers this confidently in his Canon of the New Testament. He states that [by the time of Irenaeus] the “fixing of the number and selection (of the Gospels) is final . . . for Irenaeus the Gospel canon is closed and its text is holy.”[3] He may well be correct. However, in arriving at this conclusion he makes assumptions that leave room for doubt, or at least raise some additional questions. Specifically, in light of the totality of evidence, this manner of a declarative statement seems difficult to wholly support. As he cites no specific evidence, Metzger appears to simply trust or assume that Irenaeus has in mind kanwn as a specific and authoritative collection of books. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to respond to Metzger’s conclusion by reviewing three pieces of evidence that testify to the fact that Irenaeus did not view the Gospel canon as closed.

Terms and Definitions

Of the challenges surrounding this subject, the inconsistent understanding and application of the term kanwn might just be foremost. This difficulty arises from the fact that there are variable definitions and understandings for the word. For example, if an author were to make a comment contending that a particular Christian document (such as one of the Gospels) was determined to be canonical later than Paul’s undisputed letters, that person would not be making a clear statement because there was not a specific qualification of the term canonical. Did the author mean that Paul’s letters were recognized to be authoritative and normative for the growing Christian communities (before the Gospels)? If this is the case, most people would likely agree with the statement.[4] However, if the author meant that the process of canonization of Paul’s undisputed letters was closed and they had been formally recognized and no others would be recognized as authoritative (prior to the canonization of the Gospels) then there would likely be some dispute; hence, the difficulty with the definitions.

This having been said, Bauer’s seminal lexicon lists three helpful explanations. First, it states that kanwn is a “means to determine the quality of something.” An appropriate translation in this instance would be ‘rule’ or ‘standard’. This is derived from the original meaning of the word—‘a straight rod,’ which would have been used to “keep things straight, or as a test of straightness.”[5] Thus, the word evolved into the meaning provided by Bauer. The second definition is a “set of directions or formulation for an activity, (translated as assignment or formulation). For the third translation, Bauer notes that “in the second century in the Christian church kanwn came to stand for revealed truth.”[6] In other words, when one referred to the canon, he was simply referring to the Bible.

After reviewing several theological dictionaries Ulrich comes to a conclusion that mirrors Bauer’s. He contends that the term denotes two principle meanings. First, “the canon of scripture, i.e., the canon which scripture constitutes, the rule of faith articulated by the scriptures, the rule that determines faith, the authoritative principles and guiding spirit which govern belief and practice.” In other words, Ulrich describes canon not as a tangible concept, such as a list or physical collection of books, but rather as an abstract reference to the set of scriptures that creates and provides authority for faith and the practice of faith. The second definition is “the canon of scripture, i.e., the canon which constitutes scripture, the list of books accepted as inspired scripture, the list that has been determined, the authoritative list of books which have been accepted as scripture.”[7] The key word here is ‘list.’ It presumes that the list is definitive and closed, with nothing to be removed and nothing to be added. Given the totality of the evidence, it seems that the most common definitions (at least for the purposes of this paper) are the two specific definitions listed by Ulrich. Specifically, these two definitions play an instrumental role in this discussion: when Irenaeus used the term kanwn, which was he referring to?

Similarly, a proper understanding of the term euaggealion is helpful in this discussion. Bauer lists three definitions. The first is “God’s good news to humans.” Accordingly, this is translated (in terms of a proclamation) simply as ‘good news.’ Second, he states that it recounts “details relating to the life and ministry of Jesus;” in other words, the good news which is the story of Jesus’ life. Thirdly, it is a “book dealing with the life and teaching of Jesus, a gospel account.”[8] It is worth noting that only one of the three involves in a written source or document.

With regard to the use of the term in the second century, the current research points to the conclusion that the term euaggealion was most often used in terms of an oral tradition (or one of the first two definitions provided by Bauer). For example, in the First Epistle of Clement there is no indication that the author used or knew of a written gospel. 1 Clem. 13.2; 46.8 and 47.2 each refer to or are drawn from the oral tradition.[9] Likewise, the Epistle of Barnabas (Barn. 5.9) and the Second Epistle of Clement (2 Clem. 4.5; 9.11) both consistently use the term to denote an oral proclamation.[10]

This having been said, there does appear to be a possible exception or caveat to this conclusion when it comes to the Didache. There is evidence within the document that lead to both conclusions. For example, Did. 8.2 instructs the audience to pray “as the Lord has commanded in his gospel.” Koester implies that the form of the text is so similar with Matt. 6:7-15 that the writer is likely aware with Matthew’s gospel.[11] However, the dating of this redacted portion of the document creates further uncertainty.[12] In other words, Creed is asserting that this portion of the Didache (which contains the contradicting evidence) may in fact be from a later redaction by a subsequent author; but because dating the redaction is difficult there is little certainty to be gained in terms of this specific evidence.

Before proceeding further, it is worthwhile to point out a common error with regards to Irenaeus’ comments. Skeat contends that Irenaeus was relying on the fact that there are four principal winds, quarters of the earth, etc. as proof that there must be four Gospels and only four Gospels.[13] Both Ferguson and Stanton disagree with Skeat and agree that Irenaeus is not making a proactive argument for a fourfold Gospel because there are four winds, four-faced cherubim, four living creatures, four directions of the earth, etc.[14] Instead, as Ferguson specifically points out, he was using these as examples symbolically because he already had the four gospels. “If he had three, five or some other number he would have found an appropriately fitting analogy.”[15]

The Evidence

The first piece of evidence is that the dichotomy between scripture and tradition is problematic in light of the importance of tradition within Irenaeus’ own thinking, as well as his many comments defending the authenticity of the oral traditions that unify the universal Church (e.g. 1.10.2; 3.4.1-2; 5.20.1-2).[16] It is especially interesting to note Irenaeus’ own use of the term kanwn. If this term had taken on the definition or understanding of a list of authoritative texts, Irenaeus did not affirmatively recognize it as such. In fact, there is no evidence that Irenaeus never used the term to refer to written works.[17] Instead, when referring to authoritative teachings, Irenaeus prefers the phrase kanwn thV aleqheiaV or the “rule of truth” (e.g. 1.9.4; 1.22.1; 2.25.2; 2.27.1; 2.28.1; 2.28.3; 3.15.1; 4.35.4).

With his use of kanwn in this manner, Irenaeus seems to be consistent with the contemporary Greco-Roman use. Metzger supports this assertion when he writes that “a kanwn provides one with a criterion or standard (Latin norma) by reference to which the rectitude of opinions or actions may be determined.”[18] Though it may be obvious (and anachronistic) that Paul would not have thought of kanwn as a list, it is interesting to notice that he was familiar with the term in the same sense as Irenaeus and Metzger have pointed out. In Gal 6:16 Paul writes, καὶ ὅσοι τῷ κανόνι τούτῳ στοιχήσουσιν, εἰρήνη ἐπ’ αὐτοὺς καὶ ἔλεος, καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰσραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ.[19] Within the same previous context, Metzger stated (when referring to kanwn as an authoritative list) that the use of the term in this manner was “late in developing; so far as we have evidence, it was not until the second half of the fourth century that kanwn and its derivatives . . . were applied to the Scriptures.”[20] In fact, Athanasius was the first to use the word to refer to a set of books as being “kanonizomena.”[21] This having been said, it seems certain that when Irenaeus insisted that the Gospels could be ‘no more than four’ he was not implying that they existed in a canonized state. Oddly, Metzgers’ own comments affirm this reality.

The second piece of evidence concerns Irenaeus’ use of the gospel texts. While there are certainly examples of Irenaeus citing correctly from the individual gospels, there are a number of examples where he is either careless with his citation or simply uses the introductory formula of ‘the Lord said,’ ‘the Lord declared,’ or ‘the Lord said in the Gospel.’[22] For example, in the preface of Book III, an incomplete form of Luke 10:18 is introduced as ‘the Lord declared.’ Elsewhere in 4.6.1, 6.3 and 6.7 he cites Matt 11:27.[23] However, it appears that he has done so flippantly or carelessly, as the verse is recorded differently in all three citations. In fairness to Irenaeus, the question must be asked: are these examples truly the result of a careless or dismissive attitude toward text that Metzger says he viewed as ‘holy’? Or is there perhaps another explanation?

There is every indication that Irenaeus maintained the upmost respect for the gospels. In fact, that appears to be the very motivation for his writing this document. As Stanton points out, the Gospel was not simply a collection of documents. Instead, it was the words and message of Jesus that had been brought together through both oral tradition and various textual traditions; and for Irenaeus these traditions which represented the very words of Christ were substantially more authoritative than any individual writings produced by the evangelists.[24] Koester adds to the discussion when he indicates that during this time period “gospel writings were variously known and used. But they did not have the authority of holy scripture, nor was their dignity enhanced by the title euaggelion.”[25] Simply put, the manner in which Irenaeus referenced or cited the gospels was not as a result of a lack of respect. Instead, it seems to be in keeping with how these oral traditions might have normally been cited.

Third, the contemporary reader must distinguish between Irenaeus’ perception and understanding of kanwn. That having been said, there is also a risk of retroactively “reading his defense of tetramorfon to euaggelion in Adv. haer 3.8.11 through our knowledge of subsequent developments, misinterpreting its original purpose within Irenaeus’ own work.”[26] In other words, before the modern reader can accurately determine the significance and meaning of the passage, it (euaggelion) must first be read within the total context of Adversus haereses. The context reveals that Irenaeus was not referring to a closed collection of four texts.

Irenaeus’ pattern of usage of euaggelion reflects that his primary aim was not to establish (or even to remind the reader of) a canonicity of the four gospels. Again, there is no evidence to suggest that Irenaeus was aware of such a concept, much less desiring to promote it. Instead, the context reveals that his purpose was to defend the singular Gospel message against heretical teaching, particularly Gnosticism.[27] To that end, Barr’s comments are a helpful reminder. “The fact that a writer or theologian concerned himself with questions of the canon does not necessarily mean that they were very important to his basic thinking.”[28] In fact, according to Koester said that “the evidence from all extant sources . . . reveals that euaggelion is always and everywhere understood as the proclamation of the saving message about Christ or the coming of the kingdom.”[29] Ultimately, Irenaeus was concerned with protecting the Church by showing them that the four distinctive gospel documents, that they were evidently familiar with, had the authority to and purpose of revealing and pointing to one singular ‘truth,’ because they were “held together by one Spirit.”[30]


Prior to concluding this essay, it is necessary to point out that there are worthwhile opponents of these views (not the least of which is Metzger). Additionally, Ferguson[31] agrees with Metzger’s interpretation of Irenaeus’ writings. Their reputations as outstanding scholars notwithstanding, it seem possible that their understanding of Irenaeus’ comments indicating a closed canon might have been premature. The testimony of Irenaeus’ comprehension of kanwn, the manner in which he used and cited Gospel texts and the wider purpose of the entire document tip the scales in favor of the fact that he was simply referring to a single Gospel truth that which was manifested in four specific documents; and that while he did have a notion of these four documents holding authority for the Christian community (and against those who would attack the community), he did not recognize these four as a closed and authoritative collection.[32]

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