The Four Fold Gospels and Angelic Creatures in Early Christianity
One of my great interests in early Christianity is how the earliest interpreters received and perceived the kinds of literature they were holding. In my Gospels class at CBU, I give an opening lecture on the Unity and the Diversity of the Four-Fold Gospels. I give an overview of the word "Gospel" in Jesus Tradition, discuss why we have four Gospels, and then include some of the following on the four-fold creatures and the Gospels.
In the following, I detail only three traditions about the four Creatures that were often attributed to the four Gospels. In my lecture, I cover more material. An important observation to note is how the four creatures often changed referents and the different meanings as to why. As a summary:
Irenaeus uses the 4 creatures to depict Christological distinctions
Jerome uses the 4 creatures to depict the beginnings of the Gospels
Augustine uses the 4 creatures to depict the overall message of the Gospels.
In early Christianity, Angelic and Creaturely images are given to the four-fold Gospels to reflect both their unity and diversity. These are fascinating testimonies as a unity slowly emerges around four gospels. The four creatures in Ezek 1 and Rev 4 are theologically applied to each of the Gospels.
“As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle” (Ezek. 1:10).
“The first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the their living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight” (Rev 4.7).
Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202)
Irenaeus of Lyons is among the first to connect the four Gospels to four living creatures. Of the number four, he says:
“It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
This four-fold number is based on cosmology and on theological interpretation. It is fitting to have four because “there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8). The Gospels are commissioned by the one “who was manifested to men” and “has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
He then points to these four creatures and likens them to a particular Christological image: “their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8). The Lion symbolizes “His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8). The calf signifies “his sacrificial and sacerdotal order” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8). The face of the man describes his advent as a human being. And the eagle which “pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
The Gospel of John (as the Lion) reflects the original, effectual, and glorious generation of the Son from the Father (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
The Gospel of Luke (as the Calf) takes up the priestly character, commenced with Zacharias, in the beginning of the Gospel (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
The Gospel of Matthew (as the Face of the Man) relates the generation of Jesus as man through the genealogy and his birth. Furthermore, this is the “Gospel of His Humanity,” for which the character of a “humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
The Gospel of Mark (as the Eagle) opens with the Isaianic quotation and the descent of the Spirit of God coming down from on high to men (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
Irenaeus concludes this theological reading by correlating the role of the animal to the identity of Jesus.
“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” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
The appeal, then, to these animals is both a case for plurality of Christological images, but yet ordained by God.
“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 principle covenants given to the human race” (Adv.Haer. 3.11.8).
In Jerome’s commentary to Matthew, he provides a similar discussion like Irenaeus. The four gospels, according to Jerome, “were predicted much earlier” in the book of Ezekiel (Comm.Matt. Pref.3).
The Gospel of Matthew reflects the face of a human because of the opening genealogy (Comm.Matt. Pref.3). The Gospel of Mark reflects the lion because “of a lion roaring in the wilderness” with the opening Isaianic quotation (Comm.Matt. Pref.3). The Gospel of Luke is the face of a calf because of the opening with Zachariah the priest (Comm.Matt. Pref.3). The Gospel of John signifies the Eagle because he “hastening toward higher matters, discusses the Word of God” (Comm.Matt. Pref.3).
So, unlike Irenaeus, the Creatures do not necessarily reflect Christology only, but also, how each Gospel opens their particular Gospel.
Jerome reads the other features in Ezek 1 and Rev 4 as signifying other elements involved in the acceptance of the Gospels.
“By all of these things it is plainly shown that only the four Gospels ought to be received, and all the lamentations of the Apocrypha should be sung by heretics, who, in fact, are dead, rather than by living members of the church” (Comm.Matt. Pref.3).
Augustine of Hippo (d. 430)
Augustine offers a similar tradition, but differs from the reasoning of Irenaeus and Jerome. Irenaeus conveys the Christological portrait, Jerome conveys the Gospel beginnings, whereas Augustine attempts to look at the whole of the Gospel.
“These latter have chosen to keep in view simply the beginnings of the books, and not the full design of the several evangelists in its completeness, which was the matter that should, above all, have been thoroughly examined” (Harm.Gosp. I.9).
The Gospel of Matthew, then, reflects the face of the lion because of the kingly character of Christ (Harm.Gosp. I.9). He reads Matt 1–2 and notes the kingly elements. The Gospel of Luke, as similar to Irenaeus and Jerome, is the figure of the calf because of the pre-eminent sacrifice made by the priest, the appearance of Zacharias, and priestly service of infant Jesus (Harm.Gosp. I.9). The Gospel of Mark is that of a man because the whole gospel reflects that “things which the man Christ did” (Harm.Gosp. I.9). The Gospel of John is likened to an eagle, because all three creature walk on the ground, but the eagle soars “above the clouds of human infirmity, and gazes upon the light of the unchangeable truth with those keenest and steadiest eyes of the heart” (Harm.Gosp. I.9).
What these images do, however, is attempt to affirm the disunity and plurality of images and recognize their distinct contribution. However, each Early Christian writer offers a rational that these four gospels are unified and ordained to be.
Irenaeus uses these four creatures to point to Christological distinction. Jerome uses these four creatures to point to the Gospel beginnings. And Augustine uses these four creatures to reflect the entirety of the message of a particular Gospel.
 Cf. Augustine Tractate on John 36.5. (NPNF1 7:210)