Prophetical Types (Part 2)

I began the discussion of prophetical types in a previous blog, where I introduced this class of types and discussed “Possibility 1” out of four that Fairbairn suggests. Now we’ll move on to the other three of those four prophetical types.

Prophetical Types

Possibility 2

Something typical in the past or present might be represented in a distinct prophetical announcement, as going to appear again in the future; thus combining the typical character embodied in the historical note cited. (Fairbairn, Typology, 1.111–14, esp. 111)

Let me hasten to add that we’re not talking about a double sense; rather, we’re speaking of a de facto double prophecy. On the one hand, we have a typical prophecy in action; on the other hand, we have an express prophecy in words. Fairbairn says this is a matter of the mind naturally availing itself of what is known from the past to explain what is unknown and yet in the future (1.112). Even if the theoretical description may elude you, I think you’ll easily see the typological dynamic in the following examples:

  • The bondage in Egypt will be fulfilled in another state of bondage that might also be termed “Egypt,” even though it will happen in Assyria. So Hosea twice used “Egypt” as a symbol of bondage, saying, “to me their sacrifices are all meaningless. I will hold my people accountable for their sins, and I will punish them. They will return to Egypt” (Hos 8:13); and saying, “You may no longer stay here in the LORD’s land. Instead, you will return to Egypt, and in Assyria you will eat food that is ceremonially unclean” (Hos 9:3). But when he uses Egypt literally, he says, “But since my people refuse to return to me, they will return to Egypt and will be forced to serve Assyria” (Hos 11:5).
  • The postexilic rebuilding of the physical temple foreshadowed a more glorious temple in the future.1
  • The shepherd-king David foreshadowed the Messiah’s role as the Good Shepherd.2
  • Elijah serves as a typical prophet, whose function reappears.3

Possibility 3

The typical, not expressly and formally, but in its essential relations and principle, might be embodied in its accompanying prediction, which foretold things corresponding to nature, but far higher and greater in importance. (1.115–25, esp. 115)

Again, as in possibility two, it’s not a matter of a double sense, but rather a double prophecy, that is, a typical prophecy in action coupled with a verbal prophecy in word. Fairbairn says this is much like possibility two, except that here the prophet’s own words looked to the future instead of to the past, even though he was using the past to explain the future (1.115). Once again, the examples should make this clear for you:

  • The song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1–10) referred to its immediate occasion, but it used such lofty language that in implied a greater fulfillment than Samuel’s birth would accomplish. Indeed, the Virgin Mary took up this son in its fulfilled sense in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55).
  • The language accompanying the enthronement of Davidic kings was often more lofty than could be properly fulfilled in any lesser son of David than Jesus himself, even though it obviously have reference to the enthronement at hand in the Old Testament record. Some of this language even depicted the divine element (Pss 2, 22, 45); however, it would also depict the human element (Pss 40, 64, 114). And sometimes this dual language would be organically interwoven so that it could not be split into separate messages, some referring to Solomon as the anointed Davidic son and others referring to Jesus as the Messianic Son of David. For example, Nathan’s prophecy (2 Sam 7:14–16; 1 Chr 17) was an integrated promise to the Davidic line, which could be realized at one level in Solomon and subsequent descendants, even though they had their faults; and then it could only be entirely fulfilled in Jesus, who was without fault.

Possibility 4

The typical might itself be still future, and in a prophetic word might be partly described, partly presupposed, as a vantage-ground for the delineation of other things still more distinct, to which, when it occurred, it was to stand in the relation of type to antitype. (1.115–25, esp. 115)

In this case, as in possibilities two and three, we’re not dealing with a double sense but rather with a double prophecy. In this case, we a typical prophecy lying in the nearer future but looking forward to a greater fulfillment in the more distant future as well. The fulfillment of the prophecy in the more immediate future might be typical, and only its more distant fulfillment in the eschaton would be the ultimate antitypical fulfillment.

  • The return from Babylonian exile and rebuilding in the land: The postexilic community could experience the fulfillment of those prophecies, experiencing them at the same typical level that their ancestors had experienced the exodus; therefore, it might even be construed as a “second exodus” (Isa 60–66). But the fullest import of the language would not be realized until the liberating work of Jesus.
  • Isaiah 34 indicated judgment on the nations as something that would follow the exile; however, it was also a typical note of God’s final judgment on the nations in the eschaton.
  • Matthew 24 probably spoke of the near future (i.e., AD 70); however, it was also a typical note of God’s coming in consummate eschatological judgment.

Typology: Linkable Resources

I just came across an older bibliography of clickable links to resources. I created it for a biblical theology course I taught, so it focuses quite a bit on typology. Although it could stand some updating, I figure it still retains its original value for any of you who would like easy access to some wider reading on typological studies.

Pantocrator, from Codex Bruchsal (ca. AD 1220)

Alpha & Omega

Jesus Christ is not the Alpha and an unknown x’; he’s the Alpha and the Omega.

The apostle John uses the title “Alpha and Omega” three times in the book of Revelation. He’s using the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet to talk of “the beginning and the end,” or the “first and the last” (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). And that makes me think he must surely have had in mind the Old Testament background for this: “This is what the LORD says—Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies: ‘I am the First and the Last; there is no other God’” (Isa 44:6 NLT). In other words, John the revelator’s Christology builds on this reference to God’s eternal and monotheistic uniqueness.

Revelation 1:4–8 (esp. v. 8)

Alpha and Omega
The Greek letters alpha (Αα) and omega (Ωω)

In this first use of Alpha and Omega, John evokes the early Old Testament understanding of the divine name. When God commissioned Moses to go down into Egypt and set his people free…

Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they won’t believe me. They will ask, ‘Which god are you talking about? What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?” God replied, “I Am The One Who Always Is. Just tell them, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'” (Exod 3:13–14)

Look at the language surrounding John’s use of Alpha and Omega:

This letter is from John to the seven churches in the province of Asia. Grace and peace from the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come; from the sevenfold Spirit before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness to these things, the first to rise from the dead, and the commander of all the rulers of the world. All praise to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by shedding his blood for us. He has made us his Kingdom and his priests who serve before God his Father. Give to him everlasting glory! He rules forever and ever! Amen! Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven. And everyone will see him—even those who pierced him. And all the nations of the earth will weep because of him. Yes! Amen! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the LORD God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come, the Almighty One.”

The Almighty
Phillip Medhurst, “The Almighty”

John expands on Alpha and Omega, calling Jesus “the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come” (Rev 1:8). This isn’t  just an expression of timeless eternity; John speaks also of “timeless sovereignty.”1 He’s saying, “I, the Almighty LORD of hosts, the unchangeable God, will accomplish all My will, fulfill all My word, and execute all My judgments.”2

He’s not just the source of everything, not the Alpha of a sequence that then runs its autonomous chaotic course. He’s not the initial Alpha followed by an unknown quantity x, y, or z. He’s not the Alpha and a chaotic particle in a materialistic universe. He’s the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent—and good—Alpha and Omega.

Dwelling place of God
Logos verse art for Revelation 21:3

Revelation 21:1–8 (v. 6)

The second occurrence of the formula is in Revelation 21:6. Here is the context for that use of Alpha and Omega:

21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a beautiful bride prepared for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making all things new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give the springs of the water of life without charge! All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards who turn away from me, and unbelievers, and the corrupt, and murderers, and the immoral, and those who practice witchcraft, and idol worshipers, and all liars—their doom is in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This is the second death.”

Wipe away all tears
Logos verse art for Revelation 21:4

Here the context is the consummation and the final contrast between eternal bliss in the new heavens and new earth versus eternal judgment, “the second death.” Jesus’s “It is finished!” here (vv. 5–6) reminds us of the final cry on the cross; only now he’s sitting upon a throne, and declaration “finished” is his shout over new creation. This indicates that he’s not only the initiator of creation, but he’s also the one who brings it to its telos as well. And in his hands lies the whole intermediary process, which he guides to its desired conclusion. So he’s not only the first point in time, but he’s the telos (“goal”) of creation, which is perfected in new creation. He’s certainly the preexistent architect of creation:

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. (John 1:1–3, see also Prov 8:21–31)

He’s also the architect of new creation: John reports that he is “making all things new” (Rev 21:5–6). And his purpose is not “well maybe,… on the other hand,… perhaps,… or ‘only time will tell.'” His word is sure, good as done, signed and sealed—and it will be delivered.

Make all things new
Logos verse art for Revelation 21:5

So whatever lies between the Alpha and the Omega, we can know that it’s part of his larger plan. It’s not just Henry Ford’s “one damn thing after another.” Rather, it’s one divinely foreordained thing after another. As Paul notes, “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Rom 8:28).

Rev 22:13
Logos verse art for Revelation 22:13

Revelation 22:7, 10–17 (esp. v. 13)

The third occurrence is in Revelation 22:13, which is in the context of final judgment, final separation between the wicked and the blessed.

Rev 22:12
Logos verse art for Revelation 22:12

22:7 “Look, I am coming soon! Blessed are those who obey the prophecy written in this scroll.”… 10 Then he instructed me, “Do not seal up the prophetic words you have written, for the time is near. 11 Let the one who is doing wrong continue to do wrong; the one who is vile, continue to be vile; the one who is good, continue to do good; and the one who is holy, continue in holiness.” 12 “See, I am coming soon, and my reward is with me, to repay all according to their deeds. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” 14 blessed are those who wash their robes so they can enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life. 15 Outside the city are the dogs—the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idol worshipers, and all who love to live a lie. 16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this message for the churches. I am both the source of David and the heir to his throne. I am the bright morning star.” 17 The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Let each one who hears them say, “Come.” Let the thirsty ones come—anyone who wants to. Let them come and drink the water of life without charge.

Rev 22:17
Logos verse art for Revelation 22:17

Here Jesus speaks as judge of the whole world, claiming the title that the Lord God Almighty (see also Rev 1:8; 21:6). This implies that he’s not only the author, but also the finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2). He’s not only the one who starts a good work, but one who completes it: Paul could tell the Philippian church, “I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again” (Phil 1:6).

Creation is not going to go wandering on without purpose or completion. There’s an Omega point, and his name is Jesus, the Christ, the Everlasting God Almighty. He’ll bring it to its finish. And when he does, he’ll hold up the finished product against his eternal purpose, judging everything according to that unchanging purpose. Of some he’ll say, “Blessed are those who wash their robes so they can enter through the gates of the city and eat the fruit from the tree of life” (v. 14). Others he’ll define as “outside” (v. 15).

That doesn’t imply that we who are his followers in these last days should begin our own feeble attempts to hold everyone accountable to our own mini-eschatological judicial forums. Now is not the time for judgment; it’s the time for invitation. And in following the mandate to invite, we follow a heavenly pattern just as solid as the heavenly promise of final judgment.

  • Those issuing the invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ Let each one who hears them say, ‘Come'” (v. 17a). It’s a heavenly call issued throughout God’s earthly realm, sounded forth by the Spirit, but announced and incarnated by the church.
  • Those who receive the invitation: “Let the thirsty ones come—anyone who wants to” (v. 17b). It’s a summons to the needy—and to the unworthy. So we don’t do a mini-judgment upon anyone before we determine whether to hand out a precious invitation card.
  • The gift promised to those who respond to the call: “Let them come and drink the water of life without charge” (v. 17c).


The title ascribed to the Almighty Father God, belongs equally to the Son.

  • It speaks not only of God’s eternal nature, but of his eternal purpose.
  • This purpose is to make all things holy and full of life.
  • The divine invitation goes out now, inviting “anyone who wants to,” to “Come.”
  • The promise is “without charge” and gives “the water of life.”

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25, ESV).

On Fifty Years of Marriage

Just a photo from today’s fiftieth anniversary outing to the Saint Louis Art Museum [SLAM]

For Janice and me, tomorrow (Sunday August 19, 2018) marks our fiftieth wedding anniversary. As always, we’ll be in church on Sunday, so this year’s anniversary outing was on a Saturday. We both love art and Turkish food, so we partook generously of both today. We spent the day at the Saint Louis Art Museum [SLAM] then went to Sheesh, a Turkish restaurant down near Saint Louis University. We’ll definitely return to both places—in the case of SLAM, I imagine over and over again.

Janice and I have actually been together for fifty-six years, because we became an item when we were thirteen. Neither of us ever had another sweetheart. I joke, “If you don’t like how I turned out, you should have raised me better.” To which she responds, “You’ve always been a difficult child.” Seriously, we did rather raise each other—after we found each other. We dreamed our dreams together at an early age; we said, “I do” at a young age; and we’ve walked together for about six decades. For the two of us, it’s “’till death do us part.”

Another phrase of those vows was “in sickness and in health”; and these last twenty months have at long last exercised that clause. Both of us have faced serious health challenges, although I believe we can say we’ve put the worst of it behind us. And in the thick of those challenges, we’ve each told the other more than once, “I don’t know what I would have done without you.” I know that sentiment was heartfelt when I said it, and I heard that same conviction in Janice’s voice when she said it while I sat with her in doctors’ offices, “nuclear medicine” dungeons, and beside hospital beds.

I posted a bit on Facebook a few minutes ago, saying, “We’ve been good to each other and good for each other.” We’ve been resolute at that, and what’s marked our history together should mark the rest of our years together, as God enables us.

Thanks be to God—and to the wife of my youth. And as the “Theologizer,” I believe what I’ve just written is sound theology, certainly good practical theology.

Prophetical Types (Part 1)

This continues a discussion of the classes of types:

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

The previous blog covered the first three on the list. This and a couple other blogs will now cover the fourth class on that list.

Prophetical Types

Fairbairn notes that because type and prophecy both look forward, the line between them isn’t always sharply drawn. To distinguish them, he says prophecy looks forward with words and typology does so with images.1 But all of Scripture speaks through words, not the least, prophecy with its frequent “Thus saith.…” and canonical written form. And every part of Scripture makes free use of theologically rich imagery, not the least, prophecy with all of its evocative imagery of multi-hued horses, women in flying baskets, chariots of fire, locust armies, and plumb lines. So I’m not sure Fairbairn’s given us a very helpful distinction between prophecy and typology under with that rubric.

Fairbairn subdivides prophetical types under four wordy subheadings, which I’ve generally found difficult to translate into contemporary idiomatic English subheads. I tend to settle for “Possibility 1,” “Possibility 2,” and so forth; then I just quote his long nineteenth-century head sentences just in case my readers can make more sense of them than I can. But fear not: I don’t think you’ll find it difficult to understand the dynamic in play with examples as you see them, it’s just that the language he uses in his headings seems obscure.

Possibility 1

A typical action might, in some portion of the prophetic word, be historically mentioned; and hence, the mention of a prophetic circumstance or event would come to possess a prophetic character. (1.108, see 108–11)

Here he’s talking about human experience, both the common experience of all humanity in any time and everywhere and what was specific to Israel’s redemptive-historical experience. Often these experiences are, in their original Old Testament setting, pretty ordinary. So in these cases, it’s the New Testament use of the human experience that alerts us to typological potential.

General Historical Experiences

Sometimes the New Testament looks back at general human experiences but sees typological truth manifested in them. For example, after Jesus cleared the temple of the money changers, “The disciples remembered this prophecy from the Scriptures: ‘Passion for God’s house will consume me’” (John 2:17; quoting Ps 69:9), which gave the psalmist’s rationale for his hope of deliverance from persecution:

I endure insults for your sake; humiliation is written all over my face. Even my own brothers pretend they don’t know me; they treat me like a stranger. Passion for your house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. (Ps 69:7–9)

Perhaps the Septuagint gives us a hint that interpreters were taking this to have a forward-looking sense well before the New Testament used it as a reference to the suffering Messiah. The Hebrew reads, כִּֽי־קִנְאַ֣ת בֵּיתְךָ֣ אֲכָלָ֑תְנִי, which English Bibles translate, “For zeal for your house has consumed me” (e.g., ESV). The critical text of the LXX also sees this as a past tense, using an aorist: ὅτι ὁ ζῆλος τοῦ οἴκου σου κατέφαγέν με. But it’s interesting to note that Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (68:10 LXX) use a future (“will consume me”), perhaps interpreting the Hebrew as a so-called prophetic perfect: ὅτι ὁ ζῆλος τοῦ οἴκου σου καταφάγεταί με. Maybe the New Testament is drawing on this understanding.

Another example: When Jesus predicted Judas Iscariot’s forthcoming betrayal, he said, “This fulfills the Scripture that says, ‘The one who eats my food has turned against me’” (John 13:18; quoting Ps 41:9), which was language from the psalmist’s plea for healing—not something Jesus was seeking at the time:

All who hate me whisper about me, imagining the worst. “He has some fatal disease,” they say. “He will never get out of that bed!” Even my best friend, the one I trusted completely, the one who shared my food, has turned against me. Lord, have mercy on me. Make me well again, so I can pay them back!” (Ps 41:7–1)

This certainly wasn’t a prophecy in the Psalter, and it even envisioned paybacks. It probably reflected a fairly common problem of backstabbing treachery, nothing so specific as to serve even as predictive symbolism—except it was the Davidic king’s complaint, and he not the occasion in and of itself is the type of Jesus’s experience.

Another example: Jesus described the tendency of the world to hate him and his disciples, saying “This fulfills what is written in their Scriptures: ‘They hated me without cause’” (John 15:25; quoting Ps 69:4), which was the psalmist’s prayer for deliverance from unfair persecution.

Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck.… My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me. Those who hate me without cause outnumber the hairs on my head. Many enemies try to destroy me with lies, demanding that I give back what I didn’t steal. (Ps 69:1–5)

Again, this would have been a fairly common human experience, and these are even the words of an admitted sinner: “O God, you know how foolish I am; my sins cannot be hidden from you” (Ps 69:11). The typology here rests on the note that this is recounted by the head of the Davidic dynasty, who is the type of the Christ.

One final example: Matthew explains why Jesus spoke in parables, “This fulfilled what God has spoken through the prophet: ‘I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world’” (Matt 13:35; quoting Ps 78:2), which were words from the psalmist’s reflection on Israel’s rebellious history—and rebellion wasn’t part of Jesus’s contribution to Israel’s history.

O my people, listen to my instructions. Open your ears to what I am saying, for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders. (Ps 78:1–4)

Once again, it’s the voice of David that the New Testament picks up and uses typologically, but it’s not a prediction that the Messiah will teach through parables.

All of these are said to have found fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and sometimes even said to have been written by a prophet; however, when they were written, they were historical statements rather than predictions. More than that, they were typical of situations that “could scarcely fail to be often recurring in the history of God’s Church and people” (1.108). They narrated general human experiences, but those that found their highest realization in Jesus Christ, who was made like us in all manner, except for sin (Heb 2:17; 5:2). And the Davidic examples have the additional typological force in the whole Davidic-Messianic typology. It’s by this means that the New Testament authors attribute a prophetic element to these statements.

Specific Historical Experiences

Sometimes the New Testament focuses on specific circumstances from Israel’s past, which later came to be regarded as prophetically indicative of something similar under the gospel (1.109). For example, Matthew says the holy family’s escape to Egypt to await Herod’s death “fulfilled what the Lord had spoken though the prophet: ‘I called my Son out of Egypt’” (Matt 2:15; quoting Hos 11:1), which was Hosea’s historical recollection of the exodus that had occurred hundreds of years before his own time—and also comments on Israel’s idolatry:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. But the more I called to him, the farther he moved from me, offering sacrifices to the images of Baal and burning incense to idols. (Hosea 11:1–2)

Fairbairn is spot on when he says the connection “arose from the typical connection between Christ and Israel” (1.110). Matthew certainly saw this, but I’m less inclined to think Hosea, let alone Pentateuch’s earliest readers, would have considered this typological linkage.2

Hosea was commenting on an ungrateful nation that had been delivered, and it’s a bigger stretch to see ancient Israel supposing their experience would be echoed in a future Messiah’s own experience.

Another example: John explains that Jesus died quickly enough that no one had to break his legs to hasten death and noted that a soldier speared his side to verify death. On the omission of bone breaking, John explains, “These things happened in fulfillment of the Scriptures that say, ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’” (John 19:36), which may reflect the stipulation that the Passover lamb should not have broken bones (Exod 12:46; Num 9:12), or perhaps the psalmist’s assurance in the face of deep trouble.

The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. For the Lord protects the bones of the righteous; not one of them is broken! Calamity will surely destroy the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be punished. But the Lord will redeem those who serve him. No one who takes refuge in him will be condemned. (Ps 34:19–22)

I think it likely that John would have had in mind both matters, since Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God and also the ultimate righteous man.

And on the spear thrust, John said, “another scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’” (John 19:37 NET); quoting Zech 12:10). Zechariah doesn’t make it clear who the pierced one is; perhaps it’s as Calvin says, “Now, God speaks there after the manner of men, declaring that He is wounded by the sins of his people … in the same manner as a mortal man receives a deadly wound, when his heart is pierced.”3  In the New Testament context, the pierced one is Jesus. Just the language about piercing is enough to tie this into the circumstances of Jesus’s death. And the broader context in Zechariah is richly evocative:

On that day the Lord will defend the people of Jerusalem; the weakest among them will be as mighty as King David! And the royal descendants will be like God, like the angel of the Lord who goes before them! For on that day I will begin to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. “Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died. The sorrow and mourning in Jerusalem on that day will be like the great mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the valley of Megiddo. “All Israel will mourn, each clan by itself, and with the husbands separate from their wives. The clan of David will mourn alone, as will the clan of Nathan, the clan of Levi, and the clan of Shimei. Each of the surviving clans from Judah will mourn separately, and with the husbands separate from their wives. “On that day a fountain will be opened for the dynasty of David and for the people of Jerusalem, a fountain to cleanse them from all their sins and impurity.” (Zech 12:8–13:1)

Reading the text in its own context will wave off a straightforward idea of prediction: The Lord didn’t use the time of Jesus’s death to destroy the nations that dared come against Jerusalem. Jerusalem didn’t weep much over Jesus’s death, and certainly “all Israel” didn’t mourn clan by clan. What probably makes this work as typology is implied linkage with the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13–53:12).

The New Testament speaks of scriptures like these being fulfilled in the sense of fulfilling the typical character embedded in the historical note cited.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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?