Typological Method and Theory (Part 1)

A previous blog described two nineteenth-century attempts to rehabilitate typology from its allegorizing abuse. Bishop Marsh’s prescription was to limit typology, including only what Jesus or the apostle expressly used as a type. Patrick Fairbairn rejected that approach as unbiblical and aimed to do better at defining and refining typological method and theory. I’m definitely in Fairbairn’s camp on this issue, so the next few blogs will treat typological method and theory.

Typology and Symbolism

Nothing can signify anything typologically if it can’t  even signify.

Old Testament types are forward-looking symbols, so before getting into the specifics of typology itself, we need to examine the general features of symbolism. Nothing can signify anything typologically if it can’t even signify. If a way of speaking or writing fails to convey symbolic truth, it has no capacity for conveying the forward-looking symbolism that’s inherent in typology. To put it bluntly, if it’s not a symbol, it’s not a type.

Symbol and Truth: Analogically Related

Any symbol and the truth it symbolizes are analogically related to each other. So the first stage of interpreting a symbol is to note the significant correspondence between a symbol and the truth it conveys. This should always be some obvious feature, not just something incidental to the symbol. If the symbolic expression works at all, we can intuit the point; and sometimes, the broader discourse will even make the symbolic meaning explicit.

Rahab hangs the scarlet thread from her window
Frederic James Shields (1833-1911), “Rahab Hangs the Scarlet Thread from Her Window”
  • When we read that Jesus is the “gate for the sheep,” Jesus himself interprets the symbolic expression: “Those who come in through me will be saved” (John 10:7–9). We have no license to examine the “gate” for a range of symbolic meanings connected to the gate’s hinges, latch, or the wood from which it’s made. Legitimate access is the point.
  • Rahab’s cord dangled from her window as a sign of protection for her household when Jericho fell. So we would do well to keep the focus on protection and then connect it with other signs of protection, especially when used to ward off divine wrath, such as the bloody doorposts of the first Passover (Exod 12), or the marks of protection in the visions of Ezekiel and John (Ezek 9:4–6; Rev 7 and 14) and thus with the seal of the Spirit (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30). But the scarlet color of that cord is no prefiguration of Jesus’s red blood.
  • And neither the four beasts of Daniel nor the four lepers of Samaria symbolize the four Gospel writers—or Peter, James and John, and Paul.

We should pay as much attention to the contrast as we do to the analogy when we’re interpreting symbolism.

The symbol must have some discernible and significant analogy to the truth being symbolized rather than some accidental connection. Mostly we intuit this connection—at least in everyday discourse and secular literature. But for some reason, when it comes to the Bible, many students are tempted to expand the symbolic import much wider than that. I think our high view of Scripture leads to an idea of biblical omnisignificance.1

Symbol and Truth: Metaphysically Distinct

The symbol and the truth expressed are analogous but metaphysically different from each other, analogous not identical.

Note the Contrasts as Well as the Similarities

We should pay as much attention to the contrast as we do to the analogy when we’re interpreting symbolism. If there is no contrast, we lack a figurative expression; instead, we just have a synonym.

In fact, sometimes it’s the strong contrast that gives a figure of speech its punch—as long as we can still discern the key analogy. For example, when we hear the Lord described as a drunken warrior waking up primed for a fight (Ps 78:65), we don’t think of rape and pillage; rather, we shudder to remember, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). Or when we hear the Lord’s return described like that of a thief in the night,2 we don’t think of an intruder molesting our women, kidnapping our children, or stealing our widescreen TV and jewelry; rather, we should contemplate the danger of being caught unprepared when the Lord returns to judge in righteousness.

Remember that the Symbol Is Symbolic

When it comes to biblical typology, anyone who takes the symbol for the reality has fallen into idolatry, by taking the symbol for the reality.

  • The Old Testament temple was only a handmade stone image of the truth temple that Jesus now builds.
  • The blood of bulls and goats pour on stone altars was a symbolic foreshadow of Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the heavenly altar.
  • The exodus events was not, in itself, the final salvation that it symbolized, even though it did provide real redemption at a provisional level.
  • The outward judgments of God in history are not the final judgment that they prefigure, no matter how real and lasting their consequences.
  • Even the resurrection of Lazarus was not the glorious resurrection to eternal life that it symbolized so capably.

The spiritual form is the reality, which the material symbol can only express in its limited figurative way. Some people forget this when they interpret the forward-looking Old Testament language, especially the symbols associated with the Old Testament cultus. You can’t lock the truth into its Old Testament shadowy form—and you certainly can’t return to that shadowy form once its fulfillment has come.

Plan of Jerusalem at the end of the sixth century AD, an unlikely plan for new Jerusalem
  • We don’t fix your eschatological hopes for atonement upon a renewed sacrificial system that goes back to using the blood of bulls and goats after Jesus Christ’s own once-for-all sacrifice (Heb 7:16–38; 9:13; 10:4).
  • The people of God don’t declared their citizenship in a geographical location in Palestine called Jerusalem, city of David, when the promise’s reality is “the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from God out of heaven” (Rev 3:12) and even citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20).
  • We don’t fix our hopes on a river in Palestine that watered only the Arabah and the Dead Sea, when the promise is the river of the water of life that waters the whole earth (Ezek 47:1–12; Rev 22:2).
  • We don’t fix our hopes on a temple rebuilt with stone, a mere copy made with hands (Heb 9:11, 24; cf. Mark 14:5). The promise is for the real temple, which the resurrection of Jesus Christ began to fulfill (Matt 26:61; John 2:19–21), the church containues to fulfill (1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Rev 3:12), and Jesus will consummate in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:22).

When you hear the complaint that someone is “spiritualizing away the promise” by figurative interpretation of Old Testament prophecies, you might well wonder if the real danger is carnalizing away the fulfillment by looking back at the merely figurative foreshadows as if they could ever be the eternal realities themselves; indeed, it’s a form of idolatry.


  1. James Kugel used that expression to speak of how rabbinic interpreters overloaded Hebrew parallelism and failed to see that the second half of a parallel was developing the first, not starting a new idea (The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History, reprint ed. [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998]).
  2. 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 3:3; 16:15.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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