The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7

After a ridiculously long delay, I have started to finish off my series on the Parameters of Meaning beginning with this one on Typology.  I believe these guidelines will help Bible students avoid many pitfalls in interpretation by setting limits on what constitutes legitimate hermeneutics.  For those of you interested here are the previous installments:

Parameters of Meaning – Introduction

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2 

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4a

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4b

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7: Never draw theological conclusions that are based upon typology.  Types are too uncertain and debatable for doctrines to be formulated with them.

The Bible is given, in large part for Theology.  2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us all that

All Scripture is God-breathed [out] and is profitable for doctrine (didaskalia), for reproof, the correction, for instruction in righteousness…

The Greek word didaskalia means “teaching” and is often, as in the above example, translated as “doctrine.”  This word, “doctrine”, signifies the body of biblical teaching cast in the form of propositional truths and life principles.  For doctrines, and, therefore, Theology to be really biblical, they must be clearly traceable to the text of Scripture, interpreted within its proper context.  Our doctrinal formulations should be derived from clear statements of the truth which are accessible to all people.

As we have tried to show with the Rules of Affinity, every major doctrine of the Christian Faith can be ascertained either from direct statements taken from Bible passages (this is usual), or from inferences drawn from direct statements which lead to one inevitable conclusion.  Hence, God has given mankind the essentials of Christianity on the surface, as it were, of His Word.  This being so, it is scarcely necessary to dive into the murky waters of symbolism to uncover theological truth in Scripture.

The Tricky Business of Identification

But leaving that aside, we must ask what is needed for a type to even gain credence as a type.  To begin with, nearly all the best writers on the subject say that typology is intra-testamental. This means that the type is in the Old Testament while the antitype, the fulfillment of the type, is in the New Testament.  So too Leonard Goppelt, in his Typos (ch.1), saw it as his task to examine how the use of typology by NT authors and the church guided the interpretation of the OT.

A 1997 article, “Typology: A Summary of Present Evangelical Discussion,” by W. Edward Glenny (JETS 40.4), provides three competing evangelical views, while commending a fourth; that of Richard M. Davidson, as a way forward.  Davidson himself surveys a host of contrasting theories of typology from both mainstream and evangelical sources, and concludes that they all fall short because “a solid semasiological and exegetical foundation for understanding the nature of typology is never laid.” – Typology in Scripture, 73.  (“Semasiological” refers to the actual meaning of a word as it is used).

Recently, men like RWL Moberly have proposed a typology within the OT itself independent of the NT (at least for Jewish readers).  However, Christian use of this approach will not permit fixity of types unless the NT is ushered in through the back door.  In point of fact the soil out of which much typology has been built is the view that the NT reinterprets the OT.


as more revelation was given over time…we discover more of God’s plan and where that plan is going.  It is for this reason that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament becomes definitive in helping us understand the details of the Old Testament…In other words, we must carefully allow the New Testament to show us how the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ. – Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 85-86 

But it does not follow that later revelation will always work in this way.  One thinks of the Creation account for instance, or the Fall.  And before it can be asserted that the NT has definitive interpretative clout over the OT we must ascertain whether or not the NT is addressing the particular subject the OT text is addressing.  But this brings to light the major problem, which is whether our interpretation(s) of the NT are infused with dogma.  We find such a problem in the above quotation where the authors assume without proof that “the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ”, by which they mean, the first coming of Christ.  Such a massive presupposition will inevitable color their understanding of typology, since they will be searching for types of first advent “fulfillment.”  This will unavoidably lead them into collision with the many OT texts which place the fulfillments at the second advent.  In fact, the very existence of the collision calls forth their typology to handle it!

Theological Pre-commitment 

To illustrate this idea of frontloaded conclusions again, consider this by covenant theologian Mark L. Karlberg:

The dissolution of the temporal, earthly theocracy coincided with the new covenant’s reign of God in the hearts of his people through the Spirit. In the eschatological age of the Spirit the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality unencumbered by the shadowy, earthly forms (types) characteristic of the ancient theocracy. In the period between the advents of Christ the presence of the kingdom is in anticipation of the realization of the land-promise in the consummation. – ‘The Significance of Israel in Biblical Typology’, JETS 31:3 (September 1988), 268

But it ought to be obvious that such a typological approach can only be sanctioned if the NT is given interpretive priority over the Old, which is actually only to say that the interpreter’s own theologically determined conclusions about the NT are read back into the OT!  Typology trumps contextual exegesis whenever a theological commitment predisposes the reader to employ it.  The present writer has tried to show that the new covenant insures the literal fulfillment of OT predictions, not hands them over to be “typologized”.

It is unnecessary to set forth a host of examples of competing typological opinions.  Even the classic example of Hosea 11:1 with Matthew 2:14-15 does not escape.  John Sailhamer believes the indicative themes of the exodus where drawn on by the prophet with Messiah in view.  Robert Plummer (“Righteousness and Peace Kiss: The Reconciliation of authorial Intent and Biblical Typology”, SBJT 14:2, Summer 2010), thinks that Matthew was aware of his place within the progress of revelation and perceived a correspondence between the Hosea passage and the young Jesus.  Many covenant theologians see the type in terms of sensus plenior.  Or take the many discussions of the extent of the Atonement which appeal to the chapter on Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16 for typological assistance in establishing the point – both by those arguing for definite atonement and those who argue against it.

Some dispensationalists have seen a type of the pretrib rapture of the Church in Enoch’s departure. They may point to the corroborative fact that righteous Noah was “removed” before God brought about the judgment of the Flood, or that He instituted the Passover for Israel before the Destroyer visited Egypt.  Surely we have a pattern emerging?  Or do we?

Typology is Legitimate, BUT…

Please understand me.  I am not asserting that all typology is unbiblical.  My thesis is rather that all (uninspired) typology assumes a theological grid which then acts as a place-holder for its usage.  This being so, typological assertions are always theological assertions (though not vice versa).  And since they rely on theology, types cannot be self-authenticating.  They are “authenticated” by the particular theological statement they are deemed to be making.  When this is understood, everyone ought to see that calling upon types and patterns to prove a theological point is a viciously circular exercise.

It has been said that the redemptive motif is played and replayed throughout the Bible, and that it adumbrates the story of Christ and the Church.  But as Tolkien, Lewis and others have shown, many of the world’s great stories retell biblical tales in their own way.  That doesn’t mean the world’s storytellers are pointing back to the Bible in their stories.  If they are not intently doing that, on what basis would we think the writers of Scripture were intently doing that?  They may be, but we should take care.  When one takes a good look at some of the main themes repeated in Scripture: creation; exodus; redemption; land; election; and of course, Christ, and remembers the prophetic nature of revelation, it would be surprising not to find items further on in the storyline which remind us of earlier things.  That God works in discernible forms does not mean that those forms signify a theological teaching template subordinates the words of the OT to its demands.  I believe the demands come from the assumptions often of the interpreter, not the words of the Bible.

For this reason this advice from Gerhard Maier needs to be heard:

[W]e observe in Scripture itself that typological understanding never creates new revelatory data.  It only underscores, illustrates, and amplifies what has already been stated clearly.  In other words: typological understanding enriches but does not replace a previous understanding of revelation.  It is checked by philological-grammatical understanding. – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 87.

For Maier, proposed types must wait their turn till the exegetical understanding is in hand.

I have said before that:

A type must be identified as a type. For this to occur the antitype must be known, otherwise calling something a type would be like calling it a thing-a-mi-jig. But if the antitype must be known it must be shown to be indeed an antitype. Thus, where there is good reason to question the identification (read interpretation) of the said antitype, we must examine the reasons for arriving at the identification of the antitype as an antitype.

And those reasons will almost always be derived from a person’s theological opinions.  It follows then that typology is an unsafe guide to theological formulation, and that one should not therefore base a theological teaching on typology.  Proposed types may indeed support a theological contention, but they cannot undergird and establish it.

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