The Difference Between Typology and Allegory

You may have read my previous post entitled, Are “Authorial Intent” and “Christ-Centered” Mutually Exclusive? (if not, you may want to do so before continuing, although it’s not necessary).

But this post prompts the question, if we are to preach Christ in all of Scripture (that is, preach Christotelically; see my previous post Christ in the Old Testament: Christocentric or Christotelic Hermeneutic?), are we allegorizing? If Christ is not at all present in a text, then are we spiritualizing the text by preaching Christ?

I have had enough experience with a certain school of interpretation to realize that many people answer this question in the affirmative–unfortunately. It has appeared to me, however, that part of their reason for doing so was a fundamental misunderstanding, a confusion of typology and allegory.[1] So, let me try to spell out some of the basic, introductory differences between typology and allegory.

In general, I will be using Graeme Goldsworthy’s comments in According to Plan[2] as my discussion partner here.[3]

Literalism

First, let’s lay some background by describing what Goldsworthy calls “literalism.” “Literalism involves the very serious error of not listening to what the New Testament says about fulfillment. It assumes that the fulfillment must correspond exactly to the form of the promise.” Now, if you say, “I don’t interpret the Bible literally” around most people, they’ll mistake you for a liberal. Let me assure you, (whether or not I or you agree with everything he concludes) Goldsworthy is not proposing that we don’t take the Bible seriously, take it at face value (“literal,” in this sense of the word[4]), and throw out our grammatical-historical hermeneutic. No. He’s criticizing an ultra-literalistic hermeneutic (e.g., probably that of dispensationalism) that emphasizes an exact correspondence between the original promise and its fulfillment and thereby fails to recognize the literal complementary nature of subsequent revelation, the literal progressive developments and trajectories within revelation (e.g., typology), and consequently, literal fulfillments in the New Testament that often don’t correspond exactly to the original promise. In other words, this ultra-literalism is inconsistent in how it implements the reality of progressive revelation to its hermeneutical conclusions.[5] This sense of “literal interpretation” Goldsworthy rejects.

Allegory

Second, he describes allegory. “Allegory assumes that history is worthless as history. … [Unlike typology] the allegorist was not interested in the historical facts at all, but only in the supposed hidden meaning behind them.” The goal of allegory is to find spiritual and/or moral meanings that are beyond that outside the text itself. Unlike typology, allegory has no controls except for the imagination (or maybe better, presuppositions and philosophy) of the interpreter.

Typology

Finally, typology. Typology as a hermeneutical principle recognizes “Old Testament salvation historical realities or ‘types’ (persons, events, institutions) which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure, their intensified antitypical fulfillment aspects (inaugurated and consummated) in New Testament salvation history.”

Typology recognizes that “the historical promises are the first stages of progressively revealed truths,” and that “the historical fulfillments correspond to and develop the promises” (Goldsworthy). Therefore, unlike the subjective nature of allegory, typology is rooted in the revelation, its progressive development, and redemptive-history which corresponds to that development. So unlike allegory, typology sees history as meaningful. Typology is rooted in historical realities. It sees the literal meaning of the text, but its also anticipatory and predictive in nature (not mere analogies), having a developed, fuller meaning (sensus plenior) of the original reality as informed by progressive revelation and redemptive history.

Concerning this fuller meaning (sensus plenior), Michael D. Williams notes that we avoid allegory “not by denying the reality of the fuller sense [sensus plenior] but by insisting that the fuller sense be established only as an extension of the original sense and solely on the basis of subsequent biblical revelation.” This fuller meaning then is “a fuller sense of what is already present, not an entirely other sense, as one finds in allegorical interpretation. While it is fair to see an oak within an acorn, it is not fait to see a cow within an acorn.”

The authenticity of typology as a hermeneutical endeavor is rooted in several things:

  • God’s unchanging character. His previous actions and institutions reveal something of His unchanging character as it relates to future actions and institutions, etc.
  • God’s sovereignty, omniscience (all-knowing, including the future), and providence. God’s nature guarantees that God-designed types will be fulfilled by their antitypes. His providence over history means that history is revelatory to some extent.
  • Progressive revelation. Types involve repetition and experience a ratcheting up across redemptive history which creates anticipation for an ultimate antitype.
  • The unity of Scripture. There is a foundational continuity to all of Scripture so that typological connections are possible and not arbitrary analogies.
  • The way the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. Adhering to Sola Scriptura, it only makes sense that we learn our hermeneutic from Scripture itself, namely, the way Christ and His apostles interpreted Scripture.

That’s my humble attempt to explain these things as one who is in the process of learning about these things myself. Nonetheless, I hope that this clarifies some misconceptions and confusions.

Notes

[1] Notice I say, “part of their reason for doing so.” To explain, by writing this post I am not trying to imply that typology is the only way one can preach or read their Bibles Christotelically, canonically, or Biblical theologically. I’m addressing typology, however, because it is one of the main ways.

[2] Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991). All Goldsworthy quotations are specifically from chapter 6, “The Bible is the Divine-Human Word,” of this book.

[3] I am using Goldsworthy as my discussion partner and building off the insights and work of others in this post largely because I am not at all an expert in this area; and I do not claim to be so. Therefore, I write this post as one who is “in process” in learning about these issues. I surely cannot answer all of the difficult questions related to these things.

[4] Goldsworthy actually makes a distinction between “literal” and “literalism.” He accepts the former and rejects the latter.

[5]. In my opinion, this inconsistency in regard to the hermeneutical understanding and application of progressive revelation is one of the foundational problems with dispensationalism.

For more on this critique of an ultra-literal hermeneutic, see my previous post, “Meet Mr. Complementary Hermeneutic”.

[6] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 103.

[7] Michael D. Williams, Far as the Curse Is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 81-82.

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “The Difference Between Typology and Allegory

Comments are closed.