Typological Method and Theory (Part 2)

Biblical theology studies the teleological progression of God’s self-revelation.

Earlier posts have set out a little history of the use and abuse of the typological method, and the previous post began introducing a well-conceived methodology for typology. This post will dive into the thick of it, showing how biblical symbols get used in biblical typology.

Francis Foulkes has pointed out that because God’s nature doesn’t change, later acts of God tend to mirror his earlier acts.1 That doesn’t mean God merely repeats himself; rather than cyclical repetition, we expect heightened fulfillment that transcends earlier manifestations of the same truth. In short, biblical theology studies the teleological progression of God’s self-revelation.

Because God keeps on acting, and human beings don’t change much, a motif may repeat and build throughout the Old Testament and even into the New. So we’ll look at how typical patterns develop around related motifs. Even the New Testament times of fulfillment can have one eye on the already of redemptive history and the other on the not-yet, what awaits the coming consummation. So we’ll see how the typical motifs can recur even through New Testament times.

Forward-Looking Symbols

A previous blog mentioned that typology is forward-looking symbolism that God initiates with Old Testament symbols. So let’s explore how these forward-looking symbols (types) relate to their fulfillment (antitypes). We’ll also discuss how genuine biblical-theological typology distinguishes itself from both allegorizing and moralizing misappropriation of the Old Testament.

Relating Symbols to Types

Clowney’s Triangle

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Edmund Clowney developed a useful diagram showing the relation between biblical symbolism and typology, which implied that only a symbol could be a type.2 Clowney said if something were to convey typological truth to the nth degree (Tn), it must first be able to symbolize truth to the first degree (T1). He further stipulated that in genuine typology, the truth typified (Tn) is the very same truth that was symbolized (T1), though at a fuller level (Tn = T1). In other words, we might talk of a fuller sense but not of a different sense—let alone three or four different senses like allegorizers have proposed.

His triangle sets up an interpretive framework for examining potential types. You can use it following a three-stage process:

  1. Plug in whatever you’re considering as a type at the location marked S; in other words, identify it in your mind as a potential symbol.
  2. Think along the vertical line of symbolic reference and mark its basic meaning where it’s labeled T1; in other words, define the truth symbolized.
  3. Use T1 to restate the truth typified (Tn) after thinking along the  horizontal line of redemptive history; in other words, restate the truth in connection with how it’s fulfilled through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

See the following examples, or apply the method set out in this triangle to anything you would tend to consider an example of typology.

  • The repetitive sacrifice of a lamb throughout the Old Testament (S) symbolized substitutionary atonement (T1). Remembering that Tn = T1, we note that Jesus’s sacrificial death as the Lamb of God was the once-for-all typological fulfillment of God’s plan for substitutionary atonement (Tn), the final Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If you will, the lamb symbolized substitutionary atonement for Old Testament believers, and thus, as forward-looking symbolism, it typified the substitutionary atonement that Jesus Christ ultimately secured for us.
  • The Old Testament tabernacle and temple (S) symbolized God’s promise to dwell among his people (T1),3 which he fulfilled by incarnation when God became flesh and dwelt among us (Tn). God’s presence continues with his people, so we see the temple motif manifested throughout the New Testament, not only bodily during Jesus’s incarnate ministry, but spiritually in his people and in the consummate form in new Jerusalem, which has no temple, “for the temple is the Lord Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22).
  • The Passover blood on Hebrew door posts (S) symbolized God’s mark of ownership and protection for his people (T1), which he fulfills with the seal of his Spirit (Tn).4 This mark of protection proves to be a recurring motif, which we see in the mark of Cain (Gen 4:14) and its use in the visions of Ezekiel and Revelation (Ezek 9:4–6; Rev 7:1–8)—and note its counterfeit in the “mark of the Beast.”5
  • The prince of Tyre (S)6 symbolized a world ruler who rejects divine rule and usurps the prerogatives of divinity (T1), which the antichrist fulfills (Tn). This motif becomes a recurring typological pattern throughout the Old and New Testaments; indeed, there are “many antichrists” (1 John 2:18), from over-reaching Adam (Gen 3; see Ezek 28:12–15) to the king of Babylon (Isa 14:4, 12–13), prince of Tyre, and Daniel’s vision of Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 8:9–14, 23–25, cf. 2 Macc 6:1–6; 9:1–12, esp. v. 10).

We could and will multiply examples as this blog proceeds, but for now, we’ll let those examples wait for subsequent blog posts.

Application without Allegorizing or Moralizing

Clowney’s Rectangle

Gorden Hugenberger adapted Clowney’s triangle, creating a rectangle that helps us consciously avoid allegorizing and moralizing interpretations of the Old Testament.7 Clowney himself included this same adaptation in his own newer work, but attributed this insight about allegorizing and moralizing to his former study Richard Craven.8

  • True biblical-theological application moves from Tn to A, from fulfillment in Christ to sermonic application—preaching  Christ.
  • Moralizing moves directly from T1 to A, bypassing redemptive-historical fulfillment in Christ, preaching timeless truths in the abstract rather than Christ.
  • Allegorizing reads A back into S, also without accounting for redemptive-historical fulfillment in Christ.

All too often, today’s preaching—especially from the Old Testament—ends up a mish-mash of the moralizing and allegorizing approaches, with an occasional polite nod in the direction of fulfillment in Christ. So let’s check out these approaches.


Moralizing moves directly from T1 to contemporary application without interpreting it in the light of redemptive history, especially missing how the person and work of Jesus Christ brings the motif to fulfillment (Tn). The moralizing approach will warn us not to be like the bad people in the Bible but to be like the good people—as though there are any such people after Genesis 3 and before the incarnation. This produces messages that encourage a proud attitude of supposed spiritual accomplishment—like the Pharisee who prayed, “I thank God that I’m…” this that and the other and not a poor sinner—or it will prompt despair at achieving an appropriate level of godliness by human effort.

The only true “hero” of Scripture is God.

So it would be wrong to preach on David and Goliath then teach that we shouldn’t be like arrogant godless Goliath but be like little David. It’s not biblical to preach from this text that God wants little boys to be brave, to say nothing of teaching them that if they trust God they can kill people—but only bad people. That’s a crude moralizing misappropriation of a messianic text, which foreshadows Christus Victor not little John Doe. The only true “hero” of Scripture is God.

I’ll let that example of moralizing suffice for now, but as I write subsequent posts that treat individual types and their antitypes I’ll try to show where the modern preacher and Bible student can go wrong by moralizing on what the motif is about.


Allegorizing begins with application (A) and reads it back into the symbol (S) with no regard to grammatical-historical exegesis and its efforts to find out what a text meant to its original audience (T1). This approach packs the ancient text with an array of ideas from systematic theology, the church’s dogma, and even current philosophy. In doing that, it short-circuits the line of progressive revelation and makes contemporary application of symbolic values that the original reader could never have detected at any level. Origen’s treatment of Abraham’s marriage to Keturah is a good example of this:

The death of Sarah is to be understood as the perfecting of virtue. But he who has attained to a consummative and perfect virtue must always be employed in some kind of learning—which learning is called by the divine word his wife…. Keturah, who he married in his old age, is by interpretation incense, or sweet odor. For he said, even as Paul said, “We are a sweet savor of Christ.”9

So it would be wrong to preach the David and Goliath story then teach people that this is a promise that we can overcome the “giants” in our life, such as addictions, depression, or financial ruin. And I won’t even attempt to survey all the other ways writers have allegorized the David and Goliath story. Given that when we talk of allegory, we’re talking about another meaning besides the one actually in the text. So I’ll let these examples of allegorization suffice for now, but in subsequent posts I’ll show how allegorization might lead you astray on each of the various motifs.

Typology and Redemptive History

I’ve pointed out how typology stays tied to grammatical-historical exegesis and wants to account for progressive revelation as it works its way through redemptive history. Either moralizing or even allegorizing may reflect decent systematic theology and biblical ethics, but neither reflects a truly biblical theology according to the pattern of Scripture. So let’s focus a little on what we mean by “redemptive history” and the idea of “progressive revelation.”

Christ as the Center of Redemptive History

Cullman’s Timeline

Oscar Cullmann speaks of Jesus Christ as the τέλος/telos (“end, goal”) of revelation but the “center” of time. This helps us to note that even the New Testament retains a forward-looking perspective on divine promises. Scholars frequently use the rubric “already/not-yet” for this double perspective. Rather than discuss this idea in the abstract, let’s adapt Cullmann’s scheme and plug in three texts that show in compact form the already/not-net of New Testament experience.

Cullmann and Already/Not-Yet

As  the examples show, what God has done for us in Christ Jesus is already in play; however, the fullest realization of that awaits the consummation, it’s not-yet. We’re already children of God, made alive in Christ, adopted and freed from bondage to sin. But we’re not-yet fully like him, fully displaying God’s immeasurable riches, or glorified.

Pattern-Making Recurring Motifs

It’s also possible to adapt Clowney’s triangle to show how progressive revelation develops recurring echoes of related symbolic truth, thus developing typological patterns. When these patterns continue on into the New Testament, they reflect the redemptive history factor of already/not-yet.

Old Testament Typological Patterns

recurring motifs
Recurring Motifs

Within the Old Testament itself, a typological pattern can recur (e.g., S1, S2, S3, etc.), all the while symbolizing a single truth (T1) and expecting the same ultimate fulfillment (Tn). A single typological trajectory might therefore combine the various classes of types that Fairbairn defines, such as institutional, historical, and prophetical types. As an example of this, see the antichrist motif laid out on an adaptation of Clowney’s triangle. We’ll start the typological trajectory with Daniel’s prophecy, though we could just as well have started with any of the three items in the Background list.

Antichrist Motif
  • Adam in the garden (S1), the king of Babylon (S2), the prince of Tyre (S3), Daniel’s visionary depiction of Antiochus Epiphanes (S4), and those who deny that Jesus is the Christ (S5) echo the same motif as history and prophecy. Each speaks of an arrogant ruler who usurps divine prerogatives or denies that they belong to God alone (T1), which the final Antichrist fulfills (Tn).
  • The mark of Cain (S1), the bloodied doorposts on Passover night (S2), Rahab’s scarlet cord on Jericho’s walls (S3), Ezekiel’s vision of a protective mark (S4), and John’s visions of a similar mark for the 144,000 (S5) all depict God’s seal of protection (T1), which the seal of the Spirit fulfills (Tn)—and see “the mark of the beast” as a counterfeit of this type.

We could multiply examples of this, but we’ll leave that to subsequent posts dealing with individual motifs that recur throughout redemptive history.

New Testament Typological Patterns

Even in “these last days,” in the times of fulfillment, a motif can manifest itself repeatedly. Because it’s truth at the fulfilled level, even the earthly manifestations should be labeled with a T rather than an S. For example, the incarnation and the church are New Testament fulfillment of the Old Testament “Immanuel” promise that God would dwell among his people. It certainly wouldn’t do to label the incarnation itself as merely a symbol (S), and neither can with do that with the corporate church or individual believers as the temple of the Lord, which fulfill the Old Testament type in some measure; however, neither the incarnation nor the church are yet the full consummation of the Immanuel principle. So we might better label them TNT or something like that and see them as still looking forward to Tn in the new Jerusalem.

And because of that, we can make direct application (A) of the manifestation of truth in its fulfilled form, even the forms we might label TNT instead of the ultimate Tn. If every promise God ever made finds its yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor 1:20), we’re talking about fulfilled truth not foreshadowing symbolism. If we have the “better” in Christ, as the book of Hebrews argues, we’re talking about the real and not the shadow, even if we still await the consummation.


Subsequent posts on this blog will treat various motifs one at a time, and we’ll use this “rectangle” to set out the proper typology and ward off any tendency to moralize or allegorize the motif instead of representing its full redemptive-historical weight, its fulfillment in Christ. And we certainly won’t be looking for an opportunity to return to the shadows when we have the reality in Christ Jesus.


  1. The Acts of God: A Study in the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament, Tyndale Monographs 3.6 (London: Tyndale Fellowship, 1958).
  2. Preaching and Biblical Theology (P & R Publishing, 1961), 98–112.
  3. Lev 26:11–12.
  4. 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:3.
  5. Rev 13:17; 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.
  6. Ezek 28:12–19
  7. “Introductory Notes on Typology,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. Greg K. Beale (Baker, 1994), 331–41.
  8. Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Crossway, 2003), 32.
  9. Origen, Homilies on Genesis, vi; quoted by Fairbairn, Typology, 1.4.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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