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The Typological Interpretation of Scripture

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  • The Typological Interpretation of Scripture

    Keith Poysti

    “Typology is the dominant and characteristic method of interpretation for the New Testament use of the Old Testament.” 1 If the typological approach to the Old Testament was so important to the New Testament authors, should not typology be a major concern for every Christian Old Testament scholar? There is in fact in the twentieth century a renewed interest in typology, if we are to judge by the amount of literature dealing with the subject. Whereas typology had fallen into a state of disrepute, due to the extravagances of certain early church fathers and of certain modern day allegorists, there seems to be a positive attitude towards typology in our day.

    Scholarly Opinion

    Gerhard von Rad has said that “typological thinking is an elementary function of all human thought and interpretation”. 2 From this very broad perspective, von Rad makes the case that we see everywhere in the history of God’s acts as recorded in the Old Testament, “the prefiguration of the Christ-event of the New Testament”. 3 God’s dealings with the people of Israel have an innate preparatory character in that they point to something beyond themselves. Typological interpretation merely sees or discovers in God’s great acts of the past the prefigurements of what Christians now possess to a greater degree. 4 Von Rad goes on to show how typological interpretation differs from the allegorical interpretation which used to pass for typology:

    Typological interpretation has to do only with the witness to the divine event, not with such correspondences in historical, cultural, or archaeological details as the Old Testament and the New may have in common. It must hold itself to the kerygma that is intended, and not fix upon the narrative details with the aid of which the kerygma is set {4} forth. It is precisely at this point that, as it is used in the church, it frequently runs wild and becomes an overly subtle exhibition of cleverness. Typological interpretation both in Old Testament and in New, does not fix upon historical or biographical details, but confines itself to the credenda. 5

    Jean Daniélou, a noted patristic scholar, emphasizes the predictive element in typology: “the essence of typology is to show how past events are a figure of events to come”. 6 It is not the past events themselves but their anticipation of new and future events of greater magnitude which is important. This typological approach to Old Testament events ran counter to that of the Rabbis who expected the return of Elias or of the tree of life. 7

    In a recent article, P. Joseph Cahill states that typology is the principle that “orders the Christian Bible”. 8 He emphasizes the predictive character of typology and most strongly, the Christo-centric dimension of typology. “All the figures or types in the Old Testament coalesce into the one antitype, the person of Christ who is the one God, the one man, the one Lamb, the one tree of life, the one temple.” 9

    Walter Eichrodt gives us the following definition of type: “The so-called tupoi . . . are persons, institutions, and events of the Old Testament which are regarded as divinely established models or presentations of corresponding realities in the New Testament salvation history.” 10 Eichrodt places typology in very close proximity to prophecy since the experience of God’s acts in the past tends to engender hope for similar acts in the future. Yet Eichrodt does not mean that a type presages a simple repetition of the past; with typology is always present the promise of that which transcends and surpasses the past. 11 Thus, against Bultman who sees in typology a return to the cyclical view of history akin to that held in the rest of the Ancient Near East, 12 both Eichrodt and von Rad argue that typology always entails progression.

    According to S. Lewis Johnson, “typology is the study of spiritual correspondences between persons, events, and things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation”. 13 Although this rather vague definition of typology is not particularly helpful, Johnson induces us to consider the “spiritual” aspect of typology: what is important is the spiritual significance of the correspondences.

    It is the analogy of way and goal, of shadow and body, of picture and object, of promise and fulfillment, of engagement and marriage. . . . This analogy in a historically unique relation, which is not without a decisive moment of intensification toward the eschaton, we call typology. 14 {5}

    Evaluation of Current Views

    All of the scholars mentioned will agree that typology is based on the belief in a God who acts in history and who has intended these acts to be a figure of events to come. Also, it is agreed that typological interpretation is Christo-centric, and is characterized by intensification (antitype is not a mere repetition of type). Finally, all believe that typology is a valid hermeneutical procedure for relating the Old Testament to the New. However, von Rad does not agree with the radical Christocentricity of Cahill but argues that typology applies to the entire Christ-event, including ecclesiology. Furthermore, there is lack of agreement and clarity on the use of typology today. And the precise relationship of typology to prophecy and exactly how a type prefigures its antitype is not entirely clear.

    There seems to be a general misunderstanding about what function typology served in the Bible. Was the basic function of typology to prove that Jesus was the Christ? Is typology simply to make connections or correspondences between Old and New Testament events? A.C. Charity is correct in criticizing the “contemporary defenders of typology” for emphasizing the historical and factual aspects of typology to the neglect of its kerygmatic and practical nature. 15 By limiting typology to the correspondences of historical events, most modern scholarship has achieved the same result as the allegorists did: interesting analogies emerge but these remain of aesthetic interest only. This leads us to the thesis of this article: that typology had a specific function as used by the biblical writers and that this function was to confront the hearer anew with God’s past actions in the midst of his people and with its corresponding demand or promise. Typology is what allows Israel’s history to apply to our history, and also what allows Jesus’ words to live in the twentieth century. We will attempt to demonstrate this central function of typology through an examination of the word typos (from which we derive typology), and from the way Jesus and the Old Testament writers used typology.


    Typos is the Greek word for type and its cognates are antitypos ( antitype, counterpart), typikos (typical) and hypotypos (model). 16 According to Goppelt, typos retains the traditional (classical Greek) senses “mark” in John 20:25, “idol” in Acts 7:43 and “text” (of a letter) in Acts 23:25. 17 In Paul and the Pastoral Epistles, typos is used six times in the sense of “a determinative example”, while in Acts 7:44 and Hebrews 8:5 typos is a heavenly “original” as compared to an earthly “copy” (antitypos). 18 Goppelt claims that in two crucial verses, Roman 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:6, Paul breaks away from the traditional sense of {6} typos and makes it a technical hermeneutical term the use of which prompted the origin of what we call typology. In these two passages, Goppelt states, “Paul describes Old Testament events as typoi in order to show hermeneutically that they point to the present eschatological salvation event.” 19 According to Goppelt, then, Paul’s use of typos in these two verses as a technical term for an Old Testament event prefiguring the Christ-event is the model for our consideration of types in the Old Testament. The question is whether typos in Romans 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 10:6 really means so much more than its ordinary meaning “example” or “pattern”? The difference in opinion on how to translate typos in Romans 5:14 is represented by the following translations; NASV “. . . in the likeness of Adam’s offense, who is a type (margin: foreshadowing) of Him who was to come.” NIV “. . . as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.”

    The marginal translation of type as “foreshadowing” is totally misleading and unnecessary. The point of Paul’s analogy is not that Adam pointed to Christ’s death on the cross but that “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin” (Rom. 5:12), “how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many” (Rom. 5:15)! This analogy, and the other inverse analogies found in this whole pericope (Rom. 5:12-21), Paul fashions under the direction of God’s Holy Spirit to vividly and forcefully confront his audience with God’s supreme act of salvation wrought through Jesus Christ.

    1 Corinthians 10:6 further confirms our opinion that Paul’s designation of Old Testament events as typoi was a way of concretizing or illustrating a point he was making. A few verses later (1 Cor. 10:11), Paul specifically states that the Old Testament events had a specific function for the New Testament people. They serve as examples to warn us of God’s punishment for sin. God has not changed and his punitive actions of the past are typical of how he will respond to disobedience today. Israel’s history confronts Paul’s audience, that is Christians throughout the ages, with the choice of following Israel’s pattern of idolatry, immorality, disobedience and grumbling or of standing firm and resisting temptation.

    This brief analysis of the use of the word typos has led us to question some of the conclusions of the theologians we looked at earlier in this paper. There does not seem to inhere in the type any predictive element which points to its antitype; an Old Testament type does not necessarily prefigure Christ; typology does not always involve increase or intensification. In a very helpful article, David Baker points out that it is only in retrospect that an event can be singled out as typical. 20 He then gives a very usable definition of a type: “a type is a biblical event, person or institution which serves as an example or pattern for other events, persons or institutions”. 21 This view of the type and typology {7} seems to accord quite well with Paul’s use of typos and with his use of the Old Testament in general. After all, did not Paul assert that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness. . . .” (2 Tim. 3:16)? Paul sustained a firm belief in the continuing value of God’s actions, words and events as recorded in the Old Testament. Typology is simply an expression of this belief.

    If typology has as important a function as we have dared to suggest, it would seem probable that this approach to Israel’s history was in use long before Paul. Daniélou has already shown how Paul’s typology differed from Rabbinic interpretation; therefore we would do better to look to Jesus’ use of the Old Testament for the source of apostolic typology. Indeed, Longenecker can confidently assert that the apostles “looked to Jesus’ own use of the Old Testament as the source and paradigm for their own employment of Scripture”. 22 Just a few examples of Jesus’ use of the Old Testament will suffice to demonstrate how true this is.

    And in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled, which says, you will keep on hearing, but will not understand; and you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull. . . .” (Matt. 13:14-15)

    This quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10 is found in all four gospels and was originally directed towards pre-exilic apostate Israel. Jesus, by his reference to a biblical situation of the past, described the present situation his audience found itself in. Israel of Isaiah’s day served to exemplify the spiritual stupor of first-century Judaism.

    Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, the stone which the builder rejected, this became the chief cornerstone, this came about from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matt. 21:42)?

    This time Jesus seemed to be accusing the priests of not understanding the Scriptures. Indeed, these points revealed, it seems, a decided inability to apply the Scriptures to their own lives. And so Jesus put himself in the place of the psalmist as the one rejected and his questioners in the place of the persecutors. The typological use of this Psalm was intended to force the priests to acknowledge their role in antagonizing Jesus, and to understand the result of their actions.

    Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered”

    What could be more typical than this quotation from Zechariah 13:7? {8} “When the leader is gone, the group will fall apart.” The function of this use of typology was no doubt to comfort the twelve in their abandonment of Jesus.

    Jesus thus often referred to events and situations of the past that correspond to the situation of his audience or of himself. Through the use of typology, Jesus exposed the message of the Old Testament. The Rabbis often obscured the Scriptures by their allegorical interpretation and by their refusal to allow the past to speak in and to the present.

    Many scholars have noticed that typological interpretation goes back further than Jesus. Goppelt, von Rad, Daniélou, and Eichrodt among others, have seen a typological approach to past events already at work in the Old Testament writings. These scholars argue that typology is rooted in the prophets. Goppelt’s summary is typical: the prophets foresaw a new exodus (Hos. 2:17; Jer. 16:14f; Isa. 43:16-21; 48:20f.), a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 54:9f.), a second kingdom of David (Amos 9:11f; Isa. 11:1-10; Mic. 5:1; Ezek. 34:23f), a new Zion (Isa. 2:2ff; Isa. 54:11-14), and a new creation like paradise (Isa. 11:6ff; 51:3). 23 It is no wonder that the prophets grounded their appeals and promises in the events of the past. In so doing, they drew on God’s unchanging character; what God did in the past was a pattern of or a basis for what would happen in the future.

    A. C. Charity finds the typological mode of thinking at work early in Israel’s history. His main point is that only a few generations after the exodus event, the Israelites contemporized God’s past actions. Charity shows how the Law was a “way” to “walk in” which suggests a close link with Israel’s and even Abraham’s trial wanderings as they followed God in obedience.

    The commandments were God’s and to keep them implied a following of God, a repetition, so to speak, of the historical way once taken in the footsteps of God. Obedience was an imitation of that of the “fathers”, an affirmation that whatever the particular historical circumstances, they were under the hand of the same God and following him, and therefore that the wilderness journey was a norm or type of their own existential situation under God, under God’s judgement and grace. 24

    It was also in the events of the Exodus that the laws concerning the freeing of slaves, the laws to ensure justice and kindness to sojourners (Deut. 15:15), and the laws of ritual cleanness (Lev. 20:24-26) find their basis and rationale. 25 But most significantly, we find that even after the Exodus event became history (after the forty years of wandering), the people of Israel were addressed as if they had been actively involved in the events (Josh. 24:6,7). 26 {9}

    In an enlightening article, Horace D. Hummel advances the thesis that the “typical” is of primary importance to the Old Testament. He says that “most of the Old Testament literature was selected, preserved, arranged and presented to a large extent with an eye to the typical”. 27 He shows how this typological concern is evident in the historical accounts, in the biographies of leading individuals, in the Psalter, and in the make-up of Israel’s laws.

    Von Rad also notes the importance of typology in the Hexateuch as evidenced by a seemingly intentional lack of interpretation by the authors of the writings. 28 But it also was primarily in respect to the cult that typology made its mark: “It was in the cult . . . that the great redemptive acts of God were re-enacted or represented in a great theophany of renewed contemporization and confrontation, climaxing in covenant renewal”. 29

    Walter Brueggeman has artfully brought the Psalms to bear on the life of the contemporary user through what he calls a “typology of function”. His thesis is that though the setting of the Psalms is not the same today, the function of the Psalms will forever remain the same. 30 This means that the very nature of the Psalms points to the importance of typology for their continuing usage. Their enduring ability to reach man in his innermost being is achieved by the correspondences the reader makes between the psalmist’s situation (which is typical) and his own.


    We have tried to show that Paul’s use of typos, and Jesus’ use of the Old Testament and the Old Testament writings themselves all demonstrate a functional typology. And this function is to confront a contemporary audience anew with the demand inherent in God’s past actions or word. This ability to contemporize a word given to past generations depends on the aptness of the correspondences between type and antitype. In the Old Testaments alike, typology is not developed into a system (as the word typology suggests). 31 Typological interpretation is based on the belief that God’s words and actions are timeless; their message applies to all ages. The entire Bible is typical “because it presents examples and patterns of the experience of men and women.” 32 The Flood, Exodus and Restoration are examples of the salvation everyone must experience; Noah, Job, Moses and David give us patterns for Christian behaviour; the Temple is typical of the church as God’s dwelling-place. 33

    The number of types we can discover in the Bible is unlimited, though our use of types must accord with the Biblical use of types. That is, the type must be shown to have a correspondence to the present life need of the hearer which is so apt and pertinent that he is once again {10} placed in proximity to the original event or word. Other than this, we must insist with von Rad that no restriction be placed on the use of typology. 34 Typology must be taken seriously not only as the task of the preacher or theologian but as the challenge and responsibility of the Spirit-filled exegete.

    1. David L. Baker, “Typology and the Christian Use of the Old Testament,” SJT 29 (April 1976): 141.
    2. Claus Westermann, ed., Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1964), p. 17.
    3. Ibid., p. 36.
    4. Ibid.
    5. Ibid., pp. 36-37.
    6. Jean Daniélou, From Shadows to Reality (London: Burns and Oates, 1960), p. 12.
    7. Ibid.
    8. Joseph P. Cahill, “Hermeneutical Implications of Typology,” CBQ 44 (April 1982): 270.
    9. Ibid., p. 274.
    10. Westerman, Old Testament Hermeneutics, p. 225.
    11. Ibid., p. 235.
    12. Ibid., p. 283.
    13. S. Lewis Johnson, The Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), p. 55.
    14. Westermann, Old Testament Hermeneutics, p. 180.
    15. A. C. Charity, Events and their Afterlife (London: Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 58.
    16. Gerhard Kittel, ed., TDNT, vol. 8, trans. and ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 248-249.
    17. Ibid., p. 248.
    18. Ibid., p. 248.
    19. Ibid., p. 253.
    20. Baker, Typology, p. 152.
    21. Ibid., p. 153.
    22. Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 207.
    23. Kittel, TDNT, p. 254.
    24. Charity, Afterlife, p. 44.
    25. Ibid., p. 45.
    26. Ibid.
    27. Horace D. Hummel, “The Old Testament Basis of Typological Interpretation,” BR 9 (1964): 41.
    28. Westermann, Old Testament Hermeneutics, p. 29.
    29. Hummel, Typological Interpretation, p. 48. {11}
    30. Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function,” JSOT 17 (June 1980): 5.
    31. Westermann, Old Testament Hermeneutics, p. 235.
    32. Baker, Typology, p. 156.
    33. Ibid., p. 156.
    34. Westermann, Old Testament Hermeneutics, p. 30.

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