In Pursuit of Responsible Typology

As I mentioned yesterday, there has been some discussion within dispensational circles lately about typology and analogical interpretation. In my post yesterday I shared my dissatisfaction and qualms with that view which seeks to remove typology from its typical central role in “doing” Biblical theology in favor of “putting one’s Bible together” by means of analogy. So because I understand typology as fundamental to the unity and promise-fulfillment structure of the Old and New Testaments as well as a central way the New Testament writers use the Old Testament to show its continuity with their message and the work of Christ, I’m in pursuit of something more than an analogical interpretation, that being typology.

But yes, if lacking good definition and hermeneutical safety-rails, typology can easily become something other than typology–imaginative, fanciful, interpretations; finding typology where typology is not really present and connecting dots where no dots are to be found.[1] But, while recognizing the possible “slippery-slope,” I don’t want to be fallacious and equate typology with the slope itself, as many seem to do (e.g., Mark Snoeberger). Typology done legitimately is legitimate, despite hermeneutically unfortunate and irresponsibility decisions that find refuge under the umbrella of typology.

As David Baker states,

The fact that the term ‘typology’ has been applied to trivial correspondences, confused with allegory and symbolism, and misused in the exegesis of the Old Testament does not invalidate it as a principle if properly used.[2]

Typology done well, by definition[3] does justice to and does not diminish previous revelation. Therefore, I’m not abandoning typology. Instead I want to dive straight into it and seek out how to “do” typology responsibly.

Many books and articles have proved helpful in this endeavor; and I’d like to share with you some particularly helpful snippets from some works I’ve read.[4]

Defining terms

But before I do, some of you may be asking, “what in the world ty·pol·o·gy?” So let me begin by providing a very generic, loose, bare-bones, common denominator-like definition of type and typology:

A type is a biblical event, person, or institution which serves as an example or pattern for other events, persons, or institutions….

Typology is the study of types and the historical and theological correspondences between them….[5]

We might add that an antitype is that which fulfills the type. So for example, the Old Testament sacrifices anticipated and served as a type which was ultimately fulfilled in Christ, the ultimate sacrifice, the antitype.

Now, that we have a skeleton definition, let’s get some meat on its bones.

Fred Zaspel

Fred Zaspel notes how the redemptive-historical metanarrative of the Old Testament provides the setting for legitimate typology.

A larger consideration that sheds light on the typological interpretation of the Old Testament … is the overshadowing context of covenant and promise that dominates the Old Testament. God had made important promises … 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.

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 … that dominated the whole religious outlook of Judaism and the Old Testament. 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.

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.

He speaks to the typological patterns and paradigms built into scripture itself and notes the prospective, anticipatory nature of typology.

It [typological interpretation] 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….

They [the apostles] observed in the Old Testament itself certain repeated patterns that “predict” or prefigure how God will act in the future.

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).[6]

Jonathan Lunde

Lunde describes “the presupposition that history is expressive of God’s intent and will” as “undergirding typology” and creating “the literary environment where typological interpretations can thrive.” He states,

Since God is sovereign over history and since he is consistently true to his character, his actions in prior history are assumed to anticipate his intervention in subsequent eras. Accordingly, biblical authors trace “correspondences between God’s activity of the past and his action in the present — between events then and events now, between persons then and persons now” or in the future. As such, these are not merely historical “illustrations.” Rather, they are patterns divinely intended to reveal God’s will, such that “climactic events in Israel’s history become the paradigms by which new events are explained.” This means that at times “the text is not used up by a single event” …. [7]

In regards to a hermeneutically responsible typology, typology is rooted in history. Biblical typology is rooted in history as recorded in the text of scripture. Typology is a theological-interpretive mindset or attitude toward history, behind which is understood to be a sovereign, unchanging, and redeeming God.

G.K. Beale

G.K. Beale provides some traits or qualifications for a type, helping us responsibly identify what is and is not a type.

  1. Analogical correspondence – There exists between the type and antitype a close analogical correspondence of truths.
  2. Historicity – The typological relationship is rooted in historical realities.
  3. A pointing-forwardness – The type contains an aspect of foreshadowing or anticipation (even if only recognized in retrospect and/or after the revelation of the antitype).
  4. An escalation in meaning concerning the correspondence between the type and antitype.
  5. Retrospection – Although types contain foreshadowing and anticipatory elements, such typological relationships are more fully understood in retrospect, only after fulfillment.

He also provides some criteria for determining types:

  • “Discerning an OT type as exegetically discerned from the OT writer’s authorial perspective.”
  • Noting deliberately repeated and clustered narrations that anticipate resolution.
  • “Discerning OT people modeled on other earlier [or subsequent?] well known and established OT types.”
  • “Observing major redemptive-historical events that are repeated….”
  • “Being aware that types may be discernible in the central theological message of the literary unit and not in the minute details of a particular verse.”
  • “Being aware of OT prophecies that are only partially fulfilled within the OT epoch itself and that contain patterns that still point forward to a complete fulfillment….” (i.e., “partial antitypes” serve as types).[6]

Douglas Moo

Seeking to answer whether typology is prospective or retrospective (i.e., “Does the Old Testament type have a genuinely predictive function, or is typology simply a way of looking back at the Old Testament and drawing out resemblances?”) which is important in determining a responsible, Biblical, hermeneutic of typology, Moo states,

If we ask whether the typological correspondence was intended in the Old Testament, we would answer differently according to what is meant. If by “intended” is meant that the participants in the Old Testament situation, or the author of the text that records it, were always cognizant of the typological significance, we would respond negatively. But … there is some kind of “prospective” element in typological events. … The “anticipatory” element in these typological experiences may sometimes have been more or less dimly perceived by the participants and human authors; but it is to be ascribed finally to God, who ordered these events in such a way that they would possess a “prophetic” function.

It appears, then, that typology does have a “prospective” element, but the “prospective” nature of specific Old Testament incidents could often be recognized only retrospectively. … The prospective element in many Old Testament types, though intended by God in a general sense, would not have been recognized at the time by the Old Testament authors or the original audience.

Speaking to the typological patterns built into scripture itself, Moo states,

What might at first sight appear to be arbitrary applications of Old Testament texts, based on mere verbal analogies or the like, can often be seen to be founded on a deeper, typological structure. … God had so ordered Old Testament history that it prefigures and anticipates His climactic redemptive acts and that the New Testament is the inspired record of those redemptive acts.[9]


Now this is obviously just a sampling of scholarly work done on the issue of typology. The goal in providing these quotes was not to answer all of the questions one might have about typology, but to simply demonstrate that the pursuit of a responsible typological hermeneutic is a legitimate and possible endeavor.


[1] But if you want to talk about a loose canon for imaginative, fanciful interpretations, the analogical interpretation is not off the hook either. You can make analogies between almost anything.]

[2] David L. Baker, “Typology and the Christian use of the Old Testament,” pg. 328, in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, edited by G.K. Beale.

[3] I.e., typology is rooted in historical realities and the actual meaning of texts contrary to allegory which seeks to find deeper, more meaningful meaning beyond the text and historical realities themselves.

[4] I’ve read many good works on this subject by many authors who are not represented here. I have chosen the following selection for various reasons: (a) I think these quotations are clear and understandable (at least in relation to some other more technical works); so I chose these knowing many of our readers have not previously engaged in these matters at the technical level. (b) I think that these quotations address key issues concerning determining a hermeneutically responsible typology; they aren’t just talking about typology in general. (c) As silly as a reason as it may seem, many of the citations listed made it in this article because I had access to a computer when I was reading them; and I also had the time and motivation to type them out. In other words, there’s a lot out there, but this is a nice “sample platter.”

[5] Baker, “Typology and the Christian use of the Old Testament,” 327-328.

[6] Citations from this section are from the following three articles by Zaspel: “The Warrant for Typological Interpretation of Scripture”“The Nature of Biblical ‘Types'”; and “Typology as Prophecy,” all via Credo Magazine.

[7] “Introduction” in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament38-39.

[8] The following notes are summaries from G.K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 14-15, 19, 20-23.

[9] Citations are from “The Problem of Sensus Plenior” in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon by D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge.