The Claim: The number four was used as a determining factor in deciding which books were canonical.
The favoured four gospels were chosen, in part, for weird reasons which owe more to poetic fancy than to history. Irenaeus, one of those influential figures in the early history of Christianity known as the ‘Fathers of the Church’, lived a century before the Council of Nicaea. He was convinced that there had to be four gospels, no more and no fewer. He pointed out (as though it mattered) that there are four corners of the earth and four winds. As if that wasn’t enough, he also pointed out that the Book of Revelation refers to God’s throne being borne by four creatures with four faces. This seems to have been inspired by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who dreamed of four creatures coming out of a whirlwind, each one of which had four faces. Four, four, four, four, you can’t get away from four, we obviously have to have four gospels in the canon! I’m sorry to say that’s the kind of ‘reasoning’ that passes for logic in theology.
Dawkins, Richard. Outgrowing God (p. 27). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The number four was not a criterion used to determine which books should be included. No one who has studied the development of the Biblical canon would say so. Irenaeus’s comments that Dawkins mentions were in defense of including all four recognized Gospels in the canon list.
The Context of Irenaeus’s Quote
It is important to note that this is in the second century. At the time Irenaeus is writing, a man named Marcion was arguing that Luke was the only true gospel and all of the others should be left out. In response, Irenaeus wrote a defense of all four Gospels, listing several reasons why each should be included. It was not until the fourth century that the councils that decided on the Canonical books.
Dawkins’s False Narrative
Dawkins makes it out to seem as though there were more Gospels from which a selection was made and that since Irenaeus had an affinity for the number four, he proposed that there should be only four Gospels. This creates a false narrative. In truth, Irenaesus’ reasoning was posteriori. His argument was along the lines, “Of course we have four Gospels! Doesn’t that fit this pattern?” It was not that we should have four Gospels because of an affinity for the number four, but instead to preserve the continuity of a pattern.
Irenaeus does claim that we should not have any more or any less than this number; however, we must keep in mind he was writing a defense in a dispute with someone. This often causes us to overstate our case to make it as emotionally forceful as we can. Had there been five or six Gospels, Irenaeus would have found some pattern that those numbers fit in order to provide a defense for them.
Further, the final say of what was in the canon was not left to Irenaeus. His claim regarding the supremacy of having four gospels was not taken into account at the councils, and, unlike Dawkins claims, it had no bearing on the resulting canon.