I’ve noted in previous posts the way in which Irenaeus connects “Scripture” and “tradition” by means of the Gospel, the content of the plan of salvation. This allows him to say that the Gospel is the ground and pillar of the truth without violating what Paul means when he calls the Church the ground and pillar of the truth.1 What the Church teaches is the message of the Gospel.
Irenaeus makes that point again later in Book 3 of Against Heresies.
First, in 3.11.7 he gives the “first principles” of the Gospel, which is closely connected to the written Gospels (for the Gospels contain the Gospel), in keeping with what we saw previously. Irenaeus lists several different types of heretics and explains the way in which each one uses the Gospels to construct his case, with each heresy connected to a reading of one particular Gospel. Interestingly, Irenaeus thinks that they can be refuted from those documents themselves. Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, is antidote enough against a false or partial interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel. Every heretic may have his Scripture, but that Scripture itself will refute him.
7. Such, then, are the first principles of the Gospel: that there is one God, the Maker of this universe; He who was also announced by the prophets, and who by Moses set forth the dispensation of the law,— [principles] which proclaim the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ignore any other God or Father except Him. So firm is the ground upon which these Gospels rest, that the very heretics themselves bear witness to them, and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavours to establish his own peculiar doctrine. For the Ebionites, who use Matthew’s Gospel only, are confuted out of this very same, making false suppositions with regard to the Lord. But Marcion, mutilating that according to Luke, is proved to be a blasphemer of the only existing God, from those [passages] which he still retains. Those, again, who separate Jesus from Christ, alleging that Christ remained impassible, but that it was Jesus who suffered, preferring the Gospel by Mark, if they read it with a love of truth, may have their errors rectified. Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel, as I have shown in the first book. Since, then, our opponents do bear testimony to us, and make use of these [documents], our proof derived from them is firm and true.
Irenaeus goes on to argue that the fourfold number of the Gospels is perfect, based on a series of things that come in fours, including the zones of the world and the creatures in Revelation 4. These living creatures are pictures of aspects of the Son of God in the economy of salvation and manifest His unity in diversity. As he makes these connections, he remarks in passing again that the Gospel is the pillar and ground of the Church, the same creative use of 1 Timothy 3:15 we saw previously. The Gospel (and the Gospels) are constitutive of the Church, and not the other way around.
8. It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and thepillar and ground1 Timothy 3:15 of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sits upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation,You that sits between the cherubim, shine forth.For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says,The first living creature was like a lion,Revelation 4:7 symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; butthe third had, as it were, the face as of a man,— an evident description of His advent as a human being;the fourth was like a flying eagle,pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church.
Irenaeus links each one of the canonical Gospels to one of the living creatures in Revelation (and thus to one aspect of the Son of God), a symbolism for the Gospels that would become popular in later Christian iconography:
And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. For that according to John relates His original, effectual, and glorious generation from the Father, thus declaring,In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and theWord was God.John 1:1 Also,all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.For this reason, too, is that Gospel full of all confidence, for such is His person. But that according to Luke, taking up [His] priestly character, commenced with Zacharias the priest offering sacrifice to God. For now was made ready the fatted calf, about to be immolated for the finding again of the younger son. Matthew, again, relates His generation as a man, saying,The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham;and also,The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise.This, then, is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that [the character of] a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel. Mark, on the other hand, commences with [a reference to] the prophetical spirit coming down from on high to men, saying,The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Esaias the prophet,— pointing to the winged aspect of the Gospel; and on this account he made a compendious and cursory narrative, for such is the prophetical character. And the Word of God Himself used to converse with the ante-Mosaic patriarchs, in accordance with His divinity and glory; but for those under the law he instituted a sacerdotal and liturgical service. Afterwards, being made man for us, He sent the gift of the celestial Spirit over all the earth, protecting us with His wings.
Again, all of these “fours” are related in Irenaeus’ mind: four aspects of the Son of God, four living creatures, four Gospels–quadriformity all around! Irenaeus even sees symmetrical quadriformity as an explanation for God’s four covenants with man:2
Such, then, as was the course followed by the Son of God, so was also the form of the living creatures; and such as was the form of the living creatures, so was also the character of the Gospel. For the living creatures are quadriform, and the Gospel is quadriform, as is also the course followed by the Lord. For this reason were four principal (καθολικαί) covenants given to the human race: one, prior to the deluge, under Adam; the second, that after the deluge, under Noah; the third, the giving of the law, under Moses; the fourth, that which renovates man, and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.
Because of this coherency and perfection in biblical-theological terms, Irenaeus warns against both adding to (e.g. Valentinus) and subtracting from (e.g. Marcion) the four Gospels, for heresy lies in either direction.
9. These things being so, all who destroy the form of the Gospel are vain, unlearned, and also audacious; those, [I mean,] who represent the aspects of the Gospel as being either more in number than as aforesaid, or, on the other hand, fewer. The former class [do so], that they may seem to have discovered more than is of the truth; the latter, that they may set the dispensations of God aside. For Marcion, rejecting the entire Gospel, yea rather, cutting himself off from the Gospel, boasts that he has part in the [blessings of] the Gospel. Others, again (the Montanists), that they may set at nought the gift of the Spirit, which in the latter times has been, by the good pleasure of the Father, poured out upon the human race, do not admit that aspect [of the evangelical dispensation] presented by John’s Gospel, in which the Lord promised that He would send the Paraclete; John 14:16, etc. but set aside at once both the Gospel and the prophetic Spirit. Wretched men indeed! Who wish to be pseudo-prophets, forsooth, but who set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church; acting like those (the Encratitæ) who, on account of such as come in hypocrisy, hold themselves aloof from the communion of the brethren. We must conclude, moreover, that these men (the Montanists) can not admit the Apostle Paul either. For, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 he speaks expressly of prophetical gifts, and recognises men and women prophesying in the Church. Sinning, therefore, in all these particulars, against the Spirit of God, Matthew 12:31 they fall into the irremissible sin. But those who are from Valentinus, being, on the other hand, altogether reckless, while they put forth their own compositions, boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have arrived at such a pitch of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writingthe Gospel of Truth,though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles, so that they have really no Gospel which is not full of blasphemy.
Irenaeus has an easy method for determining if these new purported revelations are trustworthy or not: all one need do is compare them with what is written. If one were to do so, he would be able to see–and Irenaeus claims that this possible for everyone: “any who please may learn”–that they contradict each other, such that the canonical Gospels and the writings of the Valentinians cannot both be “the Gospel of truth.” He, for his part, is convinced that the fact that the canonical Gospels, and only these, are “true and reliable” can be proved, not by appeal to authority, but by argument (and, as we saw above, the texts themselves): the content of the faith is public and therefore is subject to public investigation, inquiry, and proof.
For if what they have published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, that that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth. But that these Gospels alone are true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor diminution of the aforesaid number, I have proved by so many and such [arguments]. For, since God made all things in due proportion and adaptation, it was fit also that the outward aspect of the Gospel should be well arranged and harmonized. The opinion of those men, therefore, who handed the Gospel down to us, having been investigated, from their very fountainheads, let us proceed also to the remaining apostles, and inquire into their doctrine with regard to God; then, in due course we shall listen to the very words of theLord.