The adoption of the four Gospels by the proto-orthodox church is a remarkable feat of Christian history. At the dawn of the second century, the Jesus tradition crystalized into what are now the canonical Gospels, yet oral tradition and secondary orality remained quite alive, “other” Gospels were also composed at this time, soon after Gospel harmonies began to be written, and there were obviously other options on the table besides the adoption of a fourfold Gospel collection.
As many Christians evaluated the literary options before them, gradually it seems, the four Gospels came to be held with a special regard and a particular authority. The reasons why are complex but can be summarized, ironically, with a four-fold answer: (1) The four Gospels constituted the writings thought to most reflect the preaching, practice, and piety of the majority of churches; (2) These were the writings that were shared and copied the most frequently around various Christian networks; (3) The four Gospels were those thought to have connections to the apostolic generation, either the Apostles themselves (Matthew and John), or apostolic associates (Luke and Mark); and (4) Various “other” writings, though in some cases thought to be useful, proffered a portrait Jesus that was not as appealing to the masses as the four Gospels for it did not accord with the faith that was inherited from an earlier generation.
Irenaeus’ argument for the reliability of the four Gospels was not innovative or unprecedented. The Bishop of Lyon was simply tapping into the vein of the proto-orthodox church when he set forth a theological justification for the apostolic gospel in its four witnesses. In doing so he defended the theological and literary status quo against perceived deviants, who were promoting a different type of Jesus literature for a different type of Christ-belief. What was innovative, however, even if it met with minds of others, was Irenaeus’ claim to exclusivity ‒ no more and no less than four ‒ and his allegorical rationale for the special quality of the quaternion Gospels.
In the tradition of Irenaeus and Origen, I would be prepared to argue that it makes a lot of sense to place the fourfold Gospel at the head of the canon. To begin with, the Gospels also provide a transition point between the old economy of the Law and the new economy of the Messiah. In addition, the four Gospels, by virtue of their placement in the new covenant collection, ensure that readers of this book will be imbibed with an evangelical ethos and be ingrained with a christocentric focus. In other words, they are a fourfold rehearsal of the fact that the Bible is about the Gospel of the Lord. According to the Gospels, Christianity is not a system of neo-platonic philosophy lodged inside a Jewish casing; Christianity is not German existentialism waiting to be set free from its religious mythology; Christianity is not a conservative or liberal political program looking for legitimation in religious tracts; rather, the Gospels show that Christianity is about following Jesus the Christ. Finally, the Gospels are reminders that the words and deeds of Jesus must be uppermost in the minds, hearts, prayers, thoughts, and devotion of the church. The Gospels urge that those who bear Christ’s name must be willing to believe in him and to follow him, through Galilee and Judea, through Gethsemane and Golgotha, through to the empty tomb and one day into the kingdom of heaven.