Biblical Interpretation and anticipatory models

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McGrath says there is a sense in which the history of Christian theology can be regarded as the history of biblical interpretation.[1] This is particularly true of typological interpretation. It’s history touches the earliest stages of the Christian movement, and plausibly dates back to the interpretive method of the Christ himself. Over two thousand years it has been plagued by misuse and misunderstanding. A cloud of uncertainty lingers today over the nature of typology and the hermeneutical principles that might help establish the study of types.

Definitions

A type, put simply, is an ‘anticipatory model.’[2] The traditional definition[3] of typological interpretation distinguishes it from allegorical interpretation in three key respects. First, the allegorical interpretative method treats the narrative as either feigned or, if not feigned, only for the purpose of representing a higher truth. The typological interpretative method understands the referent as an historical account with its foundation in fact.[4] Second, there must be an identifiable pattern of correspondence between dispensations. Third, there must be an escalation or heightening of the same truth embodied in the OT type and the greater NT antitype.[5] Fairbairn states, “The typical is not properly a different or higher sense, but a different or higher application of the same sense.”[6]

Jackson summarises, “A type is a real, exalted happening in history which was divinely ordained by the omniscient God to be a prophetic picture of the good things which he purposed to bring to fruition in Christ Jesus.”[7]

Precisely what constitutes a genuine type and what does not is the burden of the philosopher of typology and the theologian, and depends much upon the typologist’s definition and the guiding principles of interpretation one adopts.

History of Typological Interpretation

Typology was a new method arising almost uniquely in the apostolic age – the most likely origin Christ himself.[8] The NT writers had unity in their understanding and exposition of the OT, primarily within the framework of typological interpretation.[9]

The Christian writers of the patristic period had indeterminate views, inferred only from the occasional reference. In their writings it is often difficult to differentiate between the allegorical and the typological. The Latin fathers sparingly offer any, and when they did their usage of type had a common-sense character, being less given to the airy speculations of the Greek Fathers. No hermeneutical principles can be discerned in their writing to distinguish the fanciful from the truly typical.[10]

The Greek Fathers included Clement and his student Origen. These were both influenced by the method of Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish exegete of the Old Testament. Both had an elastic and arbitrary style of interpretation, the method of the latter being described as ‘the allegorical fury’. Origen expressly denied the existence of many Old Testament events.[11] Clement even went so far as to allegorise the decalogue.

The influence of the Alexandrian school, along with Ambrose of Milan and Augustine, was critical for the development of the Quadriga, the fourfold sense of scripture: literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. A consensus of accepted types developed in this time.[12] This method persisted throughout the middle-ages where there were no new methodological advances in typological interpretation.

The Reformers were the next to make great advances in interpretation. Their emphasis on the literal sense and dissatisfaction with fanciful exegesis provoked a radical objection to the allegorical school. Luther still employed the Quadriga, but qualified the ascendancy of the literal sense when in 1515 he stated “In the Scriptures no allegory, tropology, or anagogy is valid, unless that same truth is explicitly stated literally somewhere else. Otherwise, Scripture would become a laughing matter.”[13] Although Luther, with other reformers, often fell back on old models of interpretation, in their fervor of this principle they also discarded all use type.

No further attempt to construct a well-defined and properly grounded typological system was made until 1610, when Johann Gerhard (1582-1637), published Tractatus De Legitima Scripturae Sacrae Interpretation.[14] His student Salomon Glass’ Philologia Sacra (1623) was influential to the formation of the Cocceian School in the latter half of the seventieth century.[15] Although this rough collection did not distinguish between the typological and allegorical, seeing both as equally warranted, they did distinguish between two sorts of types: innate and inferred. Innate are those that the NT expressly states (see Appendix A). Inferred types could only confirm truth already received and must conform to the practice of the NT writers in regard to similar examples. Without solid interpretative principles the Cocceian School was given to far-fetched analogies with only superficial resemblances between the OT and the NT dispensations.[16]

The Enlightenment, with essentially an antichristian philosophy and a growing discontent for the typological extravagances of the Coccein School, led to a slow decline in Europe. In Britain Clarke, Jortin and a pervading sense of a connection of the OT with the NT stalled this decline. Into this arena fell Bishop Marsh, the ablest and most systematic expounders of a discernibly new view.[17] He held the only legitimate types were innate, and if not explicitly stated were by obvious implication. He recommended an extreme caution when intending to extend the typical sphere.

Nineteenth century Victorian England was the high-water mark in typological interpretation. It was commonplace in sermons, hymns, and tracts to read the Bible in search of types anticipating Christ.[18] A flux between expanding and limiting the sphere of legitimate types persisted, as did the mediating view of Fairbairn.[19] Critical scholarship in Germany meanwhile, with few exceptions, repudiated the method of interpretation. Types became “an historical curiosity, of little importance or significance for the modern reader.”[20]

The twentieth century saw resurgence in interest in typological interpretation. Instrumental in this was the causative climate that gave rise to the dialectical school of theology, along with four specific factors, namely; a restudy of the use of the OT in the NT; the presence of typology in the OT; a recognition of the need for a Christological interpretation of the OT; and a renewed interest in the commentaries of the Reformers.[21]

In 1939 two dissertations were published; Goppelt’s Typos: Die typologishe Deutung des Alten Testaments im Neuen, considered the standard work on typology in the NT, and Weibe’s Dei Wustenzeit als Typus der messianischen Heilzeit. Through the 40’s escalating interest led to significant studies attempting to fuse the results of historical-criticism with biblical typology. It was not until the 50’s that these drew significant notice and battle-lines were drawn.[22] A “post-critical neo-typology” was born based upon an alternative conception of revelation and history that leaves no room for the predictive element in a type.[23]

The Latter Rain Movement[24] gave the typological interpretation of scripture new life at the popular level.[25]

Davidson notes that in the history of typological interpretation there has been no firmly established hermeneutical principles or solid semasiological and exegetical foundation for “typos”.[26] It is this to which he attributes the confusion of the nature of typology that exists today, and seeks to rectify that in his own doctoral dissertation. He concludes there is substantially more work to be done as almost every area of the subject remains unsettled, including terminology, definition, characteristics, relation to other modes of expression in Scripture, origin, scope and contemporary relevance.[27]

Critical Assesment

Remnants of the Cocceian and Marshian Schools of thought persists today, making assessment of the legitimacy of typological interpretation all the more relevant. The Cocceian mode can be seen in much of the popular literature of the twentieth century,[28] and is absent of sufficient ground to warrant some specific interpretations.

The Reformers I judge to be correct in their reaction against the typological/allegorical excesses of the middle ages, characterised best by Origen and Clement. As a hermeneutical principle it is reasonable to emphasise the priority of the literal sense above, but not in exclusion of, the other senses in the Quadriga.

The Marshian School’s reaction to the Cocceian School and capitulation to the Enlightenment milieu exceeded what was reasonable. Fairbairn’s four-knuckled argument against the Marshian principle that restricted the typical sphere to innate types is decisive. First, it is too narrow to allow investigation of the rational ground for the connection of type and antitype. Second, there is a double standard with respect to prophesy and type, for there is no need to assume inspiration in order to interpret prophesy, nor decide with certainty if prophesy has been fulfilled. Christ’s rebuke in Luke 24:25 gives us a reasonable ground “to infer the same liberty to have been granted, and obligation imposed in regard to the typical.”[29] Third, the author of Hebrews gives a sharp rebuke for the believer’s unfamiliarity with the type of Melchizedek.[30] Fourth, it is unreasonable to expect the OT types are listed exhaustively in the NT. Instead of an arbitrary selection of passages and groundless preference to the few portions of the OT, it is more reasonable (especially given divine inspiration) to afford the OT a homogeneous character.

The benefits of a well-grounded typological interpretation are substantial. It allows one to see scripture as a single integrated whole and the unity of design. It clarifies the meta-narrative in scripture and calls attention to the Bibles divine origin. It gives us a view of a singular sacred history, of deep appreciation for the artistry of God and the execution of his sovereign plan of redemption, and deepens ones understanding of the entire biblical message. It shows the subservience of one dispensation to the other[31] and demonstrates the Augustinian axiom “In Vetere Novum latet et in Nove Vetus patet” (The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old is made accessible by the New).[32] The study of types bring forth the more significant conceptual background of the NT as opposed to the mythology and philosophy of Greece and Rome suggested by nineteenth century critical scholars and today’s popular detractors of the Bible. It offers valuable insights into how Jesus and his apostles interpreted his acts and teachings.[33]

The benefits of typological interpretation should be weighed against the dangers involved. Karlberg states, “Resolution of lingering differences of interpretation among evangelicals depends, to a large extent, on a proper assessment of the nature and function of OT typology.”[34] The Cocceian slope is greased by well-meaning popular expositors that fail to communicate the sound principles from which they derived their conclusions. These concerns highlight the need for a detailed and sophisticated investigation into the hermeneutical rationale for legitimizing typological interpretations. This is vital for correct doctrine and if Scripture is to avoid becoming – in Luther’s words – a laughing matter.


[1] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. (Oxford; Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 171.

[2] Chuck Missler, Cosmic Codes (Minnesota; Koinonia House, 1999), 189.

[3] This distinction between the allegory and typology in the traditional definition draws criticism from: Peter Martens “Origen the Allegorist and the Typology/Allegory Distinction” Notre Dame University. Cited 1 June 2009. Online: click here

Also, Davidson critiques the way in which the definition of type is imposed upon the text, rather than a semasiological and exegetical foundation establishing the understanding of “typos”. Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: a Study of Hermeneutical TYPOS Structures (Berries Springs, Michigan, Andrews University Press; 1981)

[4] When the literal sense looks fabulous and is considered incapable of being actual, or employed as it was meant to be fabulous for the purpose of communicating a diverse or higher sense, it is considered allegorical. The typological, on the other hand, requires the reality of the literal sense.

[5] W. Edward Glenny, “Typology: A summary of the present evangelical discussion” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, (Dec 1997), FindArticles.com. 1 Jun, 2009. click here; Leonard Goppelt, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, Mi; Eerdmans, 1939) 18.

[6] Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, 5th Ed. (London; Oliphants, 1953), 3.

[7] Wayne Jackson, “A Study of Biblical Typology” n.p. Christian Courier, Cited 1 June 2009. Online: click here

[8] James D. Smart, The Interpretation of Scripture (London; SMC Press, 1961), 94.

[9] Leonard Goppelt, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, Mi; Eerdmans, 1939), 194.

[10] Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, 5th Ed., (London; Oliphants, 1953), 7.

[11] “…where the historical narrative could not be made appropriate to the spiritual coherence of the occurrences, He inserted sometimes certain things which either did not take place or could not take place; sometimes also what might happen, but what did not.” Translated by Frederick Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. click here.

[12] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. (Oxford; Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 171.

[13] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. (Oxford; Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 173.

[14] : Peter Martens “Origen the Allegorist and the Typology/Allegory Distinction” Notre Dame University. Cited 1 June 2009. Online: click here

[15] The Cocceian school included Glass, Cocceius, Witsius and Vitrina. Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, 5th Ed., (London; Oliphants, 1953), 22.

[16] Ibid., 18.

[17] The Marshian school included Macknight, VanMildert, Conybeare, Nares, Chevalier, Horne and many others. American Joseph Muenscher writes “no person, event or institution, should be regarded as typical, but what may be proved to be such from the Scriptures.” Joseph Muenscher, “On Types and the Typical Interpretation of Scripture,” American Biblical Repository, (Jan 1841): 108

[18] George R. Landrow, “Typological Interpretations of Scripture in Nineteenth-Century Britain” n.p. A Victorian Web book. Citied 1 June 2009; click here

[19] Similar mediating views in the period come from Geerhardus Vos, Louis Berkof, and J. Barton Payne. Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: a Study of Hermeneutical TYPOS Structures (Berries Springs, MI; Andrews University Press; 1981), 48.

[20] Geoffrey W. H. Lampe and Kenneth J. Woollcombe “The Reasonableness of Typology” Essays on Typology (Naperville, IL, 1957), 17.

[21] James D. Smart, The Interpretation of Scripture (London; SMC Press, 1961), 94-96.

[22] Protagonists in the debate through the 50’s and particularly the 60’s are Rudolf Bultmann, Gerhard von Rad, Friedrich Baumgartel, Walter Eichrodt, Geoffrey Lampe with Kenneth J. Woollcombe, Hans Walter Wolff, and David L. Baker.

[23] Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: a Study of Hermeneutical TYPOS Structures (Berries Springs, MI; Andrews University Press, 1981), 111.

[24] Wikipedia, “Latter Rain Movement” Cited 1 June 2009. Online click here

[25] Key proponents from that movement include Kevin Connor, Interpreting the Symbols & Types; and Bill Britton, Jesus The Pattern Son.

[26] Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: a Study of Hermeneutical TYPOS Structures (Berries Springs, MI; Andrews University Press, 1981), 45.

[27] Ibid., 113.

[28] Ibid., 48

[29] Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, 5th Ed. (London; Oliphants, 1953), 22.

[30] Heb. 5:11-14

[31] Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, 5th Ed. (London; Oliphants, 1953), 24.

[32] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. (Oxford; Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 172.

[33] Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, 5th Ed. (London; Oliphants, 1953), 24.

[34] W. Edward Glenny, “Typology: A summary of the present evangelical discussion” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, (Dec 1997), FindArticles.com. 1 Jun, 2009. click here; M. W. Karlberg, “Legitimate Discontinuities Between the Testaments,” JETS 28/1 (March 1985) 19.