Three Classes of Types

Previous posts on this blog introduced the history and method of typology, arguing against allowing it to collapse into allegorizing. For the historical survey, we drew on Patrick Fairbairn’s work,1  and for methodology, we drew on E. P. Clowney’s useful “triangle” and “rectangle” as a starting point for developing a typological methodology that stays anchored in grammatical-historical exegesis.2

As point of entry for the diverse types in Scripture, we’ll draw on Fairbairn’s classification of types:

  • Old Testament Institutions
  • Historical Types
  • God’s Word in Creation
  • Prophetical Types

This blog post will cover the first three of those classes, and we’ll cover the Prophetical Types in another two or three postings.

Old Testament Institutions

Fairbairn divides the institutional symbols into two classes: (1) Shadows of better things to come, earthly in nature, though portraying a spiritual reality (1.55–56), and (2) rudiments, or elementary principles of true religion (1.56–58).


He says Old Testament institutions were “prophetic symbols of better things to come” (1.52). For example, the book of Hebrews treats the features of the Old Testament cultus as shadows. We must note that even the shadows could create an appropriate desire for the better things to come and not lead Old Testament saints into “mistaken and prejudiced notes of the reality” (1.52). So we treat the Old Testament institutions as useful and accurate symbols, but not the full reality of the truth they expressed. And we ask, “What per se, was the native import of of each symbol?” (1.53).

That didn’t mean the Old Testament saints would have understood all that we understand by these institutions after their purpose has come to fulfillment in Christ. Fairbairn remarks,

For the Jewish worshipper to do both his own and the Christian part—both read the meaning of the symbol as expressive of what was already laid upon open to his view, and to descry its concealed references to the yet undiscovered realities of a better dispensation—would have required a reader of discernment and strength far beyond what is now needed in the Christian.

In many ways, New Testament believers understand the theology of the Old Testament better than the Old Testament believers were able too, because we have the light of fulfillment shining brightly in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And of course, we have Jesus’s own teachings, the Gospels, and the Epistles—especially the book of Hebrews—expanding upon the implications of how Christ fulfilled the Old Testament institutions. And what shall we say of the light the book of Revelation would shed on this for us if we were to read it as the grand announcement of how Israel’s kingom and cult is coming to its climactic fulfillment through the person and work of Christ?

Historical Types

Fairbairn mentions the following examples as historical types: Noah and the flood relating to Christian baptism, Sarah and Hagar relating to spirituality and carnality, and Israel’s wilderness wanderings relating to the prospects of the church on its way to heaven (1.64–65).

The Old Testament, rightly understood, is one great prophecy of the New.


These Old Testament historical types had the same defects that Old Testament institutional types had; however, they were necessary preparatory types, just as the institutional types were. Indeed, since the whole of the Old Testament was preparatory, the whole of Israel’s history must be typical (1.71). Fairbairn noted Augustine’s words, “The Old Testament, rightly understood, is one great prophecy of the New.”3 Just as prophecy lay dimly revealed in the symbolic rites of the Old Testament cultus, so too it lay foreshadowed in the historical occasions that accompanied those rites and the people who participated in that cultus.

The Old Testament itself indicates that much of its message pertains to a higher ideal. The prophets used historical characters and events to justify their anticipations of a nobler hope (1.86–87). For example, Moses pointed forward to a prophet who was to come (Deut 18:18), David announced a king-priest who was to come (Ps 110:4), Malachi spoke of an “Elijah” who was to come (Mal 3:1; 4:5), and the prophets spoke of a “David” who was to come (Jer 30:9; Hos 3:5).

God’s Word in Creation

God’s own handiwork is, by design, well-suited to his self-revelation.

Gnostics have always denied it, but we must insist that God’s own handiwork is, by design, well-suited to his self-revelation. And creation is God’s handwork and self-revelation, not the disgusting product of some meddling demiurge. So the garden was quite suitable for foreshadowing the tabernacle and temple, the church as God’s temple, and the final paradise (1.86–87). Most importantly, the incarnation, which embedded the eternal Son deep into creation, actually could reveal God’s eternal nature, not just his temporary servanthood and self-identity with sinful man.

Berthold Furtmeyr, "The Tree of Death and Life" (15th century)
Berthold Furtmeyr, “The Tree of Death and Life, 15th century. From the Missal of Bernard von Rohr, Archbishop of Salzburg, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany.

We must remember that humanity was created in the image and likeness of God. And that meant Jesus didn’t need to discard his humanity after the resurrection and ascension to remain fully God and fully holy (1.88–93). Fairbairn insists, “The work of God in creation is to be regarded as the adequate reflection of His infinite wisdom and goodness, adapted in all respects to the purposes for which it was designed” (1.97).

Think about it: If creation really can’t display the nature of God, then God’s creating-redeeming work must have been out of keeping with his eternal unchanging character, and revealing himself as Creator would have been a dangerous misrepresentation rather than a helpful revelation of himself. Now, someone might object that the creation-wide effects of mankind’s fall into sin have now obliterated the power of creation to convey revelation from God. But Paul says even “sinful, wicked people … know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1:18–20). It’s even useless speculation to define the nature of God’s self-revelation via the incarnation without reference to sin, since it was into a sinful world and even in the likeness of sinful flesh that God became flesh (Rom 8:3). We conclude that even though sin marred creation from top to bottom, God’s remedial process of sustaining and redeeming it carries with it the assurance that he sustains his self-revelation through it and is restoring and moving creation ever onward toward his ideal (1.99–103).

A Forward Look

The next two or three posts will treat Fairbairn’s fourth class of types, which he calls “Prophetical Types.”


  1. The Typology of Scripture, reprint, 2 vols. in 1 (Funk & Wagnalls, 1900).
  2. Preaching and Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1961), 98–112.
  3. Vetus Testamentum recte intelligentibus prophetia est Novi Testament” (1.17; quoting Augustine, Against Faustus the Manichaean, 14.2.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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