History of the Typological Method (Part 2)

By the end of the patristic period, allegorization had taken a firm hold in the church’s exegesis. And this approach pretty much prevailed until nineteenth– and twentieth-century interpreters began pushing grammatical-historical interpretation, which in turn required rehabilitating of typology for the sake of theological interpretation.

Medieval Exegesis

The previous blog pointed out how allegorization prevailed in the patristic church world, especially among the Alexandrian school of interpreters. And since medieval interpreters tended to rely heavily on citations from patristic works, they perpetuated and consolidated the dominance of allegorization throughout the church.

Throughout the medieval period, a few interpreters refocused on the biblical text’s clear and natural meaning, even as they spoke of a richer spiritual sense. Some spoke a fourfold meaning, others threefold, and others twofold literal/natural and figurative/spiritual sense. For example, Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780–856), Hugh of Saint Victor (1096–1141), and Nicolas of Lyra (ca. 1270–1349) focused on the natural sense of Scripture as the basis for its spiritual teaching.

“Aquinas” (1225–1274) from an altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, by Carlo Crivelli (15th century)

The great philosopher-theologian Aquinas prioritized the natural sense and then linked the spiritual sense to it. He insisted that the spiritual sense was inherent in the meaning of the text, and getting to it required no clever or fanciful moves. Even the uneducated layman could grasp everything necessary for faith.

When we come to the precursors of the Reformation, we find John Wycliffe and William Tyndale emphasizing the natural sense of a biblical text, which fostered a desire to make the Bible available in the common tongue for the common folk. So Tyndale set out to translate the Bible from ecclesiastical Latin into common English, offering a “Bible for the plow boy.” In debate with a Roman Catholic leaders who said the common folk needed the Pope’s teaching more than they needed the Bible, Tyndale responded: “If God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

Reformation and Post-Reformation

Martin Luther (1483–1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach, the elder

The Reformer’s return to sola Scriptura implied that the common reader should understand the Scriptures. That implied an accessible natural meaning rather than an obscure allegorical meaning validated only by the church’s hierarchy. So Martin Luther denounced the fourfold sense of Scripture that relied on allegorizing: “With these trifling and foolish fables they rent the Scriptures into so many and diverse senses, that silly poor consciences could receive no certain doctrine of any thing.”1 This went hand-in-hand with his concern to translate the Bible from ecclesiastical Latin into vernacular German. Likewise John Calvin said,

Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning.2

John Calvin (1509–1564)

This may have moderated the epidemic of allegorization, at least in Reformed circles; however, highly figurative approaches to the Bible continued. For example, Puritan theologians like Cocceius (1603–1669) saw a gospel truth in every element of the Old Testament that shared any formal similarity to something in the New. 

In response, Fairbairn complained that if resemblance were all that was necessary for typology, one might just as well ransack secular history for types.3 Furthermore, he thought the Cocceian school tended to “undervalue the immediate object and design of the types of their relation to those who lived amongst them.”4 In other words, they missed out on what the Old Testament institutions taught the people of God even during Old Testament times. Even Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) employed “typology” with a very broad sense.5

Rehabilitating Typology

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the typological method needed rescue from its friends. Bishop Marsh’s approach was to hem in what might be considered a biblical type. Patrick Fairbairn’s was to establish methodological clarity for typological studies, and many others have followed his lead throughout the twentieth century.

Bishop Marsh: Narrow Constraints

Bishop Herbert Marsh († 1839)

Bishop Herbert Marsh set out to rehabilitate typology by proposing strict controls against fanciful typology.6 He limited typology to things that the Jesus Christ or his apostles had expressly treated typologically, namely, the following people and events:

Typological People

  • Adam (Rom 5:11–21; 1 Cor 15:22)
  • Melchizedek (Ps 110:4; Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:11, 17)
  • Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, and Ishmael and Isaac (Gal 4:22–35)
  • Moses (Gal 3:19; Acts 3:22–26)
  • Jonah (Matt 12:40)
  • David (Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24–25; Luke 1:32, etc.)
  • Solomon (2 Sam 7)
  • Zerubbabel and Joshua (Zech 3–4; Hag 2:23)

Typological Events

  • The preservation of Noah and his family (1 Pet 3:20–21)
  • Israel’s Passover and the exodus (Luke 22:15–16; 1 Cor 5:7)
  • Israel’s wilderness salvation (1 Cor 10; John 3:14; Rev 2:28)

It’s interesting to note the lack of Israel’s cultus in this list, to say nothing of silence on messianic typology linked to the Davidic dynasty. But as far as Marsh was concerned, that was it for truly biblical theology.

Patrick Fairbairn: Methodological Clarity

Patrick Fairbairn (1805–1874)

Patrick Fairbairn complained that Marsh had adopted an overly restrictive rule, which resulted in two problems: (1) It resulted in under-interpretation, and (2) it arbitrarily violated the very hermeneutical model that Jesus himself had set out after his resurrection.


It drops a golden principle for the sake of avoiding a few lawless aberrations…. But in the very prescription of these limits, it wrongfully withholds from us the key of knowledge and shuts us up to errors scarcely less to be depreciated than those it seeks to correct. For it destroys to a large extent the bond of connection between the Old and New Testament Scriptures, and thus deprives the Christian Church of much of the instruction in divine things which they were designed to impart.7

I would have to say, the very idea that Marsh’s restrictions left king and cult outside the parameters of typology certainly validates Fairbairn’s accusation of under-interpretation. It’s hard to think of biblical theology without messianic typology; and its impossible to track with the book of Hebrews without reflecting on how the person and work of Jesus Christ fulfills what Israel’s cultic office, institutions, and sacrifices foreshadowed.

Hermeneutical Failure

Fairbairn’s most serious complaint about Marsh’s limits was that he violated the very hermeneutical model that Jesus himself set out after his resurrection.8 Fairbairn said a list like Marsh compiled couldn’t exhaust the potential proper types; it could only provide examples that “exhibit practically the principles on which others of like description are to be discovered and explained. To hold otherwise would mean that biblical types were arbitrarily selected according to no inherent principle.”9 In other words, there has to be some inherently typological character in a type, not just an indiscernible typological factor. And that’s what Jesus was explaining during the Emmaus encounters with his disciples.

Twentieth-Century Typology

Throughout the twentieth century, many have contributed to our understanding typology that’s rooted in grammatical-historical exegesis. Lampe and Woolcombe,10 and Leonhard Goppelt come to mind.11 

Edmund P. Clowney

Today, literary criticism from the historical-critical school, especially those interested in how narrative works, see much value in typological interpretation.12

And typology is now readily embraced by evangelical exegetes like E. Earle Ellis13 and Greg Beale,14 as well as proponents of redemptive-historical preaching like E. P. Clowney,15 Sidney Greidanus,16 and Graeme Goldsworthy.17 The only real question is whether we should call typological treatment exegesis or see it as more a matter of exposition.

Graeme Goldsworthy

Subsequent posts on this blog will reflect these twentieth– and twenty-first-century developments in typology. I’ll write frequently on methodology, but I’ll sprinkle in models of that methodology throughout.


  1. Commentary on Galatians, Gal 4:26.
  2. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, Gal 4:21–25.
  3. Fairbairn, Typology, 1.13. He cites many other example of this approach in post-Reformation and Puritan circles: Benjamin Keach, Preaching from the Types and Metaphors of the Bible, originally published as Tropologia, a key to open Scripture metaphors, together with types of the Old Testament (1855 ed., Kregel reprint, 1972); Samuel Mather, The Figures or Types of the Old Testament (2nd ed., 1705; reprint, Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1969); Thomas Worden, The types unvail’d: or, The gospel pick’d out of the legal ceremonies whereby we compare the substance with the shadow: Written for the information of the ignorant, for their help in reading the Old Testament, 2nd ed. with additions corrected (William and Joseph Marshall, 1670).
  4. Fairbairn, Typology, 1.14.
  5. Stephen J. Stein, “Quest for the Spiritual Sense: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Jonathan Edwards,” Harvard Theological Review 70 (1977): 99–113; Stein, “The Spirit and the Word: Jonathan Edwards and Scriptural Exegesis,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout (Oxford University Press, 1988), 118–30.
  6. Herbert Marsh, Lectures on the criticism and interpretation of the Bible: with two preliminary lectures on theological study and theological arrangement, to which are added two lectures on the history of Biblical interpretation (London: J. G. F. and J. Rivington, 1842).
  7. Fairbairn, Typology, 1.20.
  8. Fairbairn, Typology, 1.22; citing Luke 24:25–27, 44–47.
  9. Fairbairn, Typology, 1.23.
  10. G. W. H. Lampe, “The Reasonableness of Typology,” in Essays on Typology, G. W. H. Lampe and K. J. Woolcombe, Studies in Biblical Theology (SCM, 1957) 9–38; K. J. Woolcombe, “The Biblical Origin and Patristic Development of Typology,” in Essays on Typology, 39–75.
  11. Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New (Eerdmans, 1982); and “Τύπος, Ἀντίτυπος, Τύπικος, Ὑποτύποσις,” TDNT 8.246–59.
  12. Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in 18th and 19th Century Hermeneutics (Yale University Press, 1974); Northrup Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982), esp. 105–16 where he treats “Typology” and “Metaphor.”
  13. Paul’s Use of the Old Testament (Oliver & Boyd, 1960); “Biblical Interpretation in the New Testament Church,” in Mikra, ed. M. J. Mulder, Compendia rerum iudaicarum ad novum testamentum 2.1 (Fortress, 1990), 691–725
  14. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (InterVarsity, 2004)
  15. Preaching and Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1961), esp. 98–112; Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Crossway, 2003, esp. 11–44.
  16. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Eerdmans, 1999), esp. 212–22.
  17. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Eerdmans, 2000).

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

2 thoughts on “History of the Typological Method (Part 2)

  1. I think Im starting to understand; pretty deep. Hope all is well and thank you. Jerry G St Brendan’s

    1. Jerry, I’m glad you’re making the effort to follow along on what I hope will be a robust series on how to read the Bible as something more than just…

      • Bible stories: These stories are in the Bible for more reason than just to give Sunday school teachers something to teach the little children. These stories are very theological, but they don’t necessarily just hang their theology out front on a two-sentence read-a-board message. To get at that theology, we need some disciplined reading skills.
      • Good moral advice: The Scriptures do provide lots of moral guidance, but never as rules for us to follow to achieve salvation or merit God’s favor. And we get that moral guidance from more places than just wherever we see a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not.” Indeed, Paul told Timothy “all Scripture is… profitable” for Christian discipleship” (2 Timothy 3:1). To get at that discipleship training material in all of Scripture requires those reading skills too.
      • Commands from God: Even direct imperatives from God require the kind of reading skills I mention. First of all, we can’t take every imperative verbs used in God’s speech as a command to us. God told Noah, not me, to build an ark. God told Moses, not you, to go deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage. God told Paul, not Peter to head off to Macedonia. God told John not Jerry to write what you hear so that we would have the book of Revelation. So we even have to read commands with some understanding.

      That’s the kind of things I hope to communicate in this blog. So feel free to weigh in with comments like these or even questions as the blog continues. I’ll try to answer any questions in blog comments or even subsequent blogs if they raise larger issues. Blessings my brother.

Leave a Reply