The Nature of Biblical "Types"
by Fred G. Zaspel
We saw last time that “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. In that post I sought to establish the Biblical warrant for this “typological” approach to Scripture simply
by surveying the New Testament writers’ (and Jesus’) understanding of certain Old Testament persons, events, and
institutions as pointing forward or prefiguring a work God will fully accomplish in the person and work of our Lord Jesus
In this post I will attempt, as briefly as possible, to identify more closely the nature of a Biblical “type.” We have all
seen the abuse of typology in symbolism that seems to find its grounding only in the fertile imagination of the preacher. Our
question here concerns a legitimate and responsible - that is, a genuinely biblical - typology.
Some have retreated to the “safe” assumption that the only genuine “types” are those explicitly identified for us as
such in the New Testament. This assumption may feel safe, but the approach of the New Testament writers, which they of
course learned from Jesus, seems to indicate a pattern of thinking that we are to learn. In fact, David Baker and others have
pressed this point exactly - that “typology is not so much a prescribed method of interpretation which functions according to
fixed rules, so much as it is a way of thinking” (my emphasis). That is, New Testament typology rests on a recognition of
the larger biblical story and its redemptive design, of “salvation history” as we call it, and of larger biblical and historical
patterns in God’s unfolding purpose that culminates in Christ. This understanding is essential to responsible typology.
But can we be more specific? In his new Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament Greg Beale
offers a definition that is fairly representative of the wider consensus of Christian scholarship:
“the study of analogical correspondences among revealed truths about persons, events, institutions and other
things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation, which, from a retrospective view, are of a
prophetic nature and are escalated in their meaning.”
In a responsible typology, then, there is 1) analogical correspondence - some obvious point of connection or commonality
of purpose; 2) historicity - not allegory or midrash or pure imagination; 3) anticipation - a genuine foreshadowing and
expectation, a “pointing forwardness” that is evident in the type itself; 4) retrospection - a looking back and fuller
observation that “this is that”; and 5) escalation - a heightening in which the antitype is seen as “greater and better” than the
The difficulty involved in typology stems from the more “surprising” ways in which the New Testament writers
sometimes understand the Old Testament. For example, how did Matthew see that Hosea 11:1 - “Out of Egypt I have called
my son” - was anticipatory of and “fulfilled” in the infant Jesus’ ascent from Egypt with Joseph and Mary (Matt. 2:15)? And
how did he know that Rachel’s tears (Jer. 31:15) were “fulfilled” in the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:17-
Before we are too hard on Matthew and judge him irresponsible, there are some considerations we should bear in
mind. First, we must recognize that the apostles were convinced that they were handling Scripture as it ought to be handled.
In fact, they insisted that their use of the Old Testament should prove convincing and conclusive, as in their apologetic to
the Jews. Moreover, we should assume that the apostles were in fact handling Scripture responsibly. Surely our doctrine
of inspiration requires this, and surely a large part of the apostles’ role as our teachers is to show us how to understand the
Old Testament. And yet (and here’s the rub) at least sometimes the New Testament writers seem to see more in a given
Old Testament passage than the Old Testament writer himself. Certainly, before we give the apostles a “D” in hermeneutics
we should first seek to learn from them. How did they see Old Testament passages as prospective? What consideration(s)
warranted the “fuller” meaning they give us?
Admittedly, when necessary, I am willing simply to appeal to the apostles’ inspiration and let that be that. There may
be on occasion a “fuller sense” given the New Testament author by the divine Author of both Testaments. But I think these
instances are few (see Doug Moo, “The Problem of Sensus Plenior”), and it should not be our first recourse. When at all
possible we should learn the apostolic hermeneutic itself.
A large part of the answer is found in a mix of the following considerations. First, the apostles understood the Old
Testament as an incomplete book that reaches its climax - “fulfillment” - only in Jesus. In this sense the Old Testament as a
whole was anticipatory and prospective. More importantly, they understood this sense of expectation as shaped by over-
arching divine promises - such as Genesis 3:15, Genesis 12 and 15, and 2 Samuel 7 - that dominated the whole religious
outlook of Judaism and the Old Testament. Further, as we saw last time, they observed in the Old Testament itself certain
repeated patterns that “predict” or prefigure how God will act in the future. And seeing this great forward-movement and all
these trajectories that inevitably culminate in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 1:20), the apostles had learned - from Jesus himself! - to think
Christologically. They were so deeply convinced that the Old Testament was about Jesus - both on its own terms and on the
testimony of Jesus himself (John 5:46; Luke 24:27, 44, etc.) - that they could not fail to see him throughout the text.
And yet it was not simply zealous imaginations at work. Typology may be “a way of thinking,” but it is more than
that. It is a principled way of thinking. It is looking back (retrospective), but it is also looking back and noticing that Jesus
brings about what was actually anticipated in the Old Testament (prospective).
So for example, Hosea proclaims Israel’s future restoration. Israel’s sin and rebellion will not be their final end.
There will be exile again, but there will be restoration also. And all this is described in terms of Egypt, wilderness, and
exodus. There will be a new Egypt and a new wilderness experience for rebellion, and yet a new exodus also. Add to this the
fact that Israel is God’s “son” - yet another Christological theme - and it isn’t long before you have to connect all the dots
and see a pattern that drives you to Jesus. Within all this, Matthew’s take (2:15) on Hosea 11:1 does not seem such a long
reach after all. Matthew is “looking back” with Jesus-shaped lenses, to be sure. But there is in Hosea a “looking ahead” also.
As another example, we know that Deuteronomy 18:15ff speaks directly of Jesus as a “new Moses.” So also Joshua
is treated as a new Moses. It would seem but a small step, then, to see Joshua also as a “type” of Jesus (cf. Matt. 1:21). He
also is part of that pattern that culminates in Christ.
The text of Genesis 9 famously presents Noah as a kind of new Adam, the emerging new world as a new Eden, and
so on. And the commands to Adam (Gen. 1:28) are echoed in the narratives about Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But of
course like Adam all failed. Yet the echoes of Genesis 1:28 continue to be heard throughout the Old Testament, and at some
point in it all we have to think that this pattern is anticipatory and prospective of a New Adam who will not fail.
So also, when learning the details of the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple, at some point we begin to notice
similarities with Eden, and then again in the Prophets of a new Temple to come. The pattern seems unmistakable, and it
establishes an expectation that can be realized only in Jesus. There is a retrospective aspect, of course, but a prospective one
Or, looking back from our standpoint, in Hebrews 9-10 the author reflects on the Old Testament believer observing
the sacrifices year after year. At some point the thinking person has to ask, “Of what value are these sacrifices if they have
to be repeated?” That is to say, there is something in the sacrificial system itself that is prospective, pointing away from itself
to something greater but not yet realized.
This could go on, but my point here is simply that when the apostles “saw” Jesus in the Old Testament, it was not
merely an overly zealous imagination at work but a deep conviction that Old Testament history intentionally culminates in
Jesus and that this sense of anticipation is built in to its structure and narrative.
And all this helps us to identify the nature of responsible typology. It is a way of thinking, but it is not purely
imaginative. It is a thinking guided by the structures and patterns of thought that have for centuries been building and “filling
up” (Mk. 1:15) until the fulness (Gal. 4:4) is reached in the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Col. 2:16-17).
Charles Fritsch summarizes it well:
“Thus typology is not a matter of collecting all of the resemblances between the Old and New Testaments,
but rather of understanding the underlying redemptive and revelational process which begins in the Old
Testament and finds its fulfillment in the New.”
Don Carson writes similarly:
The NT writers insist that the OT can be rightly interpreted only if the entire revelation is kept in perspective
as it is historically unfolded (e.g., Gal. 3:6-14). Hermeneutically this is not an innovation. OT writers drew
lessons out of earlier salvation history, lessons difficult to [completely] perceive while that history was being
lived, but lessons that retrospect would clarify (e.g., Asaph in Ps. 78; cf. on Matt 13:35). Matthew does the
same in the context of the fulfillment of OT hopes in Jesus Christ. We may therefore legitimately speak of a
“fuller meaning” than any one text provides. But the appeal should be made, not to some hidden divine
knowledge, but to the pattern of revelation up to that time - a pattern not yet adequately discerned. The new
revelation may therefore be truly new, yet at the same time capable of being checked against the old.
Typology, then, is something of an art as well as a science. It is “a way of thinking.” But it is not without exegetical
or hermeneutical control, as the “prospective” element ensures.