History of the Typological Method (Part 1)

Typology is an inner-biblical pattern of self-interpretation, but because the church has abused the method its reputation has suffered. In response to bad practice, the church has sometimes neglected or even disdained the typological method.

I remember telling students they should enroll in my Typology course, and they would respond, “Oh, I love typology!” But I couldn’t necessarily affirm their enthusiasm; they were almost certainly thinking of the popular allegorizing approach that finds theological significance in every little detail of the the Old Testament narrative and the tabernacle’s construction.

Allexandrian Allegorization

Following the pattern that Greeks had begun with their own core literature, Hellenized Jews and then Christians began allegorizing the Bible. Philo of Alexandria († AD 50), a Jewish philosopher who wrote during the early apostolic age, allegorized the Old Testament to harmonize it with Greek philosophy and super-enrich the Pentateuch’s1 narratives with spiritual lessons. And Christian interpreters followed the same practice.

Among the allegorizers, numbers could be manipulated at length. Of course, almost any occurrence of the number 3 became Trinitarian. And 5 and 10, 40 and 50, and 100 and a 1000 joined the list of spiritual numbers—and 6, 7, and 8, and so forth. An example of where this would lead is how the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. AD 100) interpreted the 318 fighting men of Abraham’s household as not only a generally spiritual number, but even a specifically Christian number (Gen 14:14):

10 →Ι, iōta
8 →Η, ēta
300 →T, tau
Total = 318

After running the numbers through his allegorizing abacus, using Septuagint Greek rather than the original Hebrew, he said it pointed to ΙΗ, the first two letters of ΙΗΣΟΥΣ/Iēsous, plus Τ, the “cross.” And “Barnabas” even said “Christ crucified” was actually what the author meant by “318,” though only the “spiritual” were worthy and could understand it.2 One wonders how Ezra and his colleagues explained “318” when they read and explained Genesis 14:14 to the postexilic community (Neh 8:1–8).


Of course, we refer to Origen († 254) as the great allegorist. For example, he came found “the cross of Christ” in a passage like Genesis 6:14–15. The Hebrew is עֲצֵי גֹפֶר/ʿăṣê-gōper (“wood of gopher“), which is an unknown tree, probably resinous;3 but the LXX4 rendered it as ξύλων τετραγώνων/xylōn tetragōnōn, or “squared wood.” Origen considered that to be a clear reference to the cross, rather than to marine timber and planking. And as for the ark’s dimensions: “The length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits” (Gen 6:15):

300 = 3 x 100Trinity + a full number
50the number of forgiveness
30 = 3 x 10Trinity + a number of fullness

His calculations didn’t describe a boat 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high; rather, he concluded that it shows that Jesus Christ is a spiritual “Noah” who “established these numbers in the church,” which is the ark of the New Testament.

Jacopo Succhi, “Allegory of Creation”

Origen insisted that it was important to get to the spiritual meaning, because the bare letter kills.5 He allowed that the literal historical sense had some value, but it was mainly for common people who could never understand the spiritual sense. So one wonders if Origen felt like it was okay for the common layman to be killed by this “letter”-level understanding.

It’s worth noting Christian allegorizers didn’t necessarily wander from orthodox doctrine; indeed, they tended to work their allegorizing magic to pack as much of that orthodoxy as possible into any particular text they were studying.

Nonetheless, we can’t conclude, “no harm, no foul.”

  1. Heretics could use the same method to load up the biblical text with their own doctrine; and no objective natural interpretation of Scripture could challenge it. Once the interpreter adopted the allegorizing mindset, the interpreter and his theology rather than the text was in control of the teaching.
  2. The method took the Bible away from the ordinary people and handed it to the church hierarchy. This is a natural and even unavoidable corollary of the allegorizing approach. Once you opt for “another” meaning, some authority outside the text has to validate that meaning.6

Antiochene School of Interpretation

In contrast, the Antiochene school of interpretation fostered a more natural interpretation of the biblical text. Methodius († ca. 311), Chrystostom († 407), and Theodore of Mopsuestia († 428) are some proponents. And Augustine of Hippo († 430) essentially followed the Antiochene method. Even though he displayed allegorizing tendencies,7 he denied that the contrast between the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life (2 Cor 3:6) has anything to do with allegorizing the text. Instead, he said the “letter” was the Mosaic covenant, which meant death because it condemns all men as sinners.8 And in his Christian Instruction, he set out some rules for what we might now call historical-grammatical interpretation:

  1. He warned against blind adherence to the letter without attention to its practical meaning (2 Cor 3:6). This sounds about like a homiletics prof warning students not to stop with exegesis but move on to application so they don’t end up “preaching” a commentary rather than a sermon. Or the reader being told to learn and then heed the word (Rom 2:13; Jas 1:22).
  2. He insisted that that we must follow the author’s intention, or we’ll undermine the authority of Scripture and go astray. And this rule is the Achilles heel of allegorization—and a good warning in this postmodern interpretive environment.
  3. He noted that there are “problems” in the Bible; so he said we must interpret the difficult passages by the plainer passages.9
  4. He warned against treating figurative expressions literally—and vice versa—noting that what is clearly figurative cannot be taken literally, such as “eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:54–56).
  5. He said the seven rules of Tyconius were like “keys to open the secrets of Scripture.”10

That finishes the discussion of allegorizing for now, although we’ll deal with it everywhere as we talk of the various types and how to read them—and how not to read them.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss various attempts to rehabilitate the typological method, which had been compromised by too much allegorization. You might wonder just how to follow a more controlled exegesis while doing typology—how typology and grammatical-historical exegesis work together.

Questions & Reflections

  1. How would you distinguish typological interpretation from allegorization? Do you think such a distinction is necessary or even useful?


  1. “Pentateuch” refers to the first five (penta) books of the Old Testament.
  2. Epistle of Barnabas, 9; see also Clement of Alexandria Miscellanies 6.11.
  3. Gesenius suggests, “pitch trees, resinous trees, such as the pine, fir, cypress, cedar, and other trees of the kind used in ship-building” (Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), 178). “several kinds are suggested: (NIV, NRSV, NEB, REB) cypress wood; (Lisowsky) pitch-pine; (NJB) resinous wood; (Holladay, KB3) unknown kind” (James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
  4. LXX = the Septuagint (“the seventy”), the Greek OT.
  5. Origen, First Principles; citing 2 Cor 3:6.
  6. Rome still defends this approach as an apostolic inheritance transmitted through apostolic succession. See Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture (Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1998).
  7. This was especially the case in his treatment of the parables, which do seem more prone to be taken allegorically than most other biblical genres.
  8. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter.
  9. Augustine, Christian Instruction 2.8.
  10. Augustine described the rules: “the first relates to the Lord and His body, the second to the twofold division of the Lord’s body, the third to the promises and the law, the fourth to species and genus, the fifth to times, the sixth to recapitulation, the seventh to the devil and his body” (On Christian Doctrine, 3).

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