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The Warrant for Typological Interpretation of Scripture
by Fred G. Zaspel
Typology is that study of Scripture which understands certain Old Testament events, persons, and institutions as historical and yet symbolic anticipations - or previews, prefigurements - of realities later realized in the New Testament. There are better and more specific definitions, of course, but this gets the point across simply enough. Typology is, then, a subset of our understanding of the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. We all recognize that on some level, at least, the Old Testament is characterized by promise and fulfillment, and the New Testament, by contrast, is characterized by fulfillment. One way in which this promise and hope was emphasized before the coming of Christ was through these various pictures or “types.”
Without doubt there have been some (mis)interpreters who have been - how shall we say it? “overly-imaginative”? “irresponsible”? - in their handling of Scripture. My personal favorite is the well-known (and often otherwise helpful) commentator’s declaration that the center board on the back wall of the Tabernacle represents eternal security! Understandably, some wonder, in reaction to this kind of “uncontrolled” approach, if the entire enterprise is mis-guided.
And so our question here, simply, is What is the warrant for this hermeneutic (typological interpretation)? I hope to pursue further questions in a later post, but here our quest is foundational: what is our biblical / exegetical warrant? The following four lines of approach may be helpful.
First, it seems there is some grounding in the vocabulary of the New Testament authors. This point entails at least two lines of evidence. First, there are technical designations. There is some debate here, but it seems rather difficult to overlook the significance of tupos in Romans 5:14 (Adam), antitupos in Hebrews 9:24 (tabernacle), and parabole in Hebrews 9:9 (tabernacle). In each of these instances the inspired author seems to be handling the Old Testament in a symbolic-prefiguring way and designating this understanding accordingly. Perhaps more significant than this terminology is the simple observation that certain Old Testament events are said in the New Testament to be “fulfilled” - Israel’s ascent from Egypt (Hos. 11:1 / Mt. 2:15) and Rachel’s tears (Jer. 31:15 / Mt. 2:16-18), for example. That these events are later said to be “fulfilled” (in keeping with Matthew’s use of this term) presupposes a prophetic or predictive intent of some kind. Our point here, briefly, is simply that the New Testament writers on occasion employ various kinds of terminology that identifies at least some kind of typological hermeneutic.
Our warrant for typological interpretation rests also on the authority of Jesus, who frequently identified himself with some Old Testament event that foreshadowed him in some way. For example, he identified himself with Jacob’s ladder (Jn. 1:51), the Temple (Jn. 2:19), Moses’ brass serpent (Jn. 3:14-15), the manna in the wilderness (Jn. 6:30-35), and so on. There is much more to learn about the nature and identity of types and about Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture, of course, but this is sufficient already to demonstrate that Jesus himself provides warrant for some kind of typological hermeneutic.
The apostles, in turn, followed in step. For example, the fact that the soldiers did not break the legs of Jesus is understood by the apostle John as “fulfillment” of the Passover lamb symbolism (Jn. 19:36; cf. Ex.12:46 and Num. 9:12). Paul likewise speaks of Jesus’ death as the death of the Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), and elsewhere he speaks of our Lord as another Adam (Rom 5:14). Hebrews speaks of him as the better Moses, the better priest, the better sacrifice, and the new Melchizedek. And so on it goes. Quite obviously, the inspired writers of the New Testament practices some kind of typological interpretation.
Before we go further we should pause to ask, Where did the apostles learn to read the Scripture in this way? Of course, we have to think they learned it from Jesus (cf. Lk.24:27, 44ff).
But perhaps there is more to the answer than just that. After all, where did Jesus learn to read the Scriptures like this?
Our fourth line of evidence, providing warrant for typological interpretation, is, simply, the Old Testament itself. I will not draw this out at length here, but it is important to see that this way of reading the Old Testament was not entirely new with the apostles or even with Jesus. There are typological structures and patterns already evident in the Old Testament itself.
A few examples will illustrate my point. The garden of Eden is sometimes referred to as prospective of the new creation, paradise (Is. 11:6-9). Noah seems to be presented as a “new” Adam, hopefully to succeed where Adam failed (Gen. 9:1-2, 7; cf. 1:26-28; 2:15-17). Of course he failed, which leaves open the prospect for yet another Adam. Could it be Abraham? And when he fails, is there another Adam to come who will succeed? The exodus is frequently held out as prospective of another and greater deliverance to come (Is.11:15-16; 43:16-21; 48:20-21; 51:9-11; 52:11-12; Jer.16:14-15). Joshua is presented in some ways as a new Moses. So when Joshua dies, is there hope for yet another Moses (Dt. 18:15ff)? Israel’s Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple seem to be anticipated by and patterned after the garden of Eden and yet prospective of a greater realization of God’s presence with his people (Ezek. 40-48). The Sabbath and Israel’s “rest” in the land were prospective of a greater “rest” to come (Ps. 95:18). Individuals such as Moses (Dt. 18:15ff), Melchizedek (Ps. 110), and David (Ps. 89; Is. 11:1; etc.) all anticipate a greater Prophet, Priest, and King to come. And so on. All these are prefigurements or symbolic anticipations within the narrative of the Old Testament itself, and they go a long way toward providing a hermeneutical structure for later interpreters.
I should mention one further factor in this connection, a larger consideration that sheds light on the typological interpretation of the Old Testament, and that is the overshadowing context of covenant and promise that dominates the Old Testament. God had made important promises (e.g., Gen. 3:15), most famously to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) and David (2 Sam. 7), which relentlessly rivet our attention on Christ. Seen within this context, the Old Testament’s symbolic anticipations are given much more light indeed.
The point, simply, is that throughout the Old Testament, the note of anticipation is “built in” to the narrative of various persons, events, and institutions. For the Old Testament writers, history is revelation - revelation about the future.
And so for Jesus and the New Testament writers, this hermeneutical structure was already in place. Yes, they were more detailed, and they pointed out further specific “fulfillments” that are not explicitly seen as predictive in the Old Testament. And we have yet to give precise definition of a legitimate “type” or identify the various factors that are necessary to a responsible typology that will keep our often overly-zealous imaginations in check. But we can see already that the patterns and structures embedded in the Old Testament itself provide a context in which Jesus’ and the apostles’ handling of Scripture was shown to be convincing. This, they insisted, is the way we must read Scripture.