The Trouble with Typology by David Dunham

What can we learn from the apostles? I don’t mean that to be a facetious question. It arises from a sincere interest to study Scripture rightly. Can we learn only information from the apostles, or does their methodology also inform ours? This is an important question for the church to consider as we seek to properly study the Scriptures. The methodology of the apostles should inform, if not perfectly parallel, our method of reading Scripture.

I come to this question within the context of studying typology. As I think about making Old Testament parallels to the person and work of Christ I am forced to consider the methodology of the apostles. Types are often identified by the authors of the New Testament. So Paul can speak of Adam as a type of Christ, and Moses as a type of Christ. The author of Hebrews can speak of Melchizedek as a type. Even the rock which Moses struck is called a type. The question before me is not one simply of conclusions – how did Paul determine that the rock was a type – it’s also one of transference. Can I practice the same method of identifying types in Scripture? So, even though there is no definite textual statement about Joseph as a type of Christ, can I assert that he is? There are generally two schools of thought on this subject; a quick survey of them can help us articulate the dilemma before us.

The first school of thought suggests that we cannot duplicate the hermeneutic of the apostles. After all, the apostles were inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit and we are not. They did make some bold assertions about the interpretation of passages from the Old Testament, but we cannot follow them in such practices. So New Testament scholar Richard Longenecker states, “Our commitment as Christians is to the reproduction of the apostolic faith and doctrine, and not necessarily to the specific apostolic exegetical practices” (Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 219). In this view we cannot go through the Scriptures and make typology connections in the same way that the apostles did. We may not say, then, for example that Joseph is a type of Christ, since such is not clarified by any New Testament author. We may only draw conclusions about types based on what are actually revealed in Scripture as types.

The second school of thought argues that our interpretive methodology must be informed by the New Testament itself. If, after all, we don’t get our methodology from the Bible then where do we get it from? Dan McCartney suggests that “our interpretation be in some way rooted in the apostles’ own use of the Old Testament” (“Should We Employ the Hermeneutics of the New Testament Writers?”). Other scholars like G.K. Beale and John Frame echo his sentiment. It’s an important one. If we are not going to follow the apostles in reading the Bible the way that they did then we must ask whom do we follow. The danger in following the practice of the apostles, of course, is that some may suggest everything is a type, and of course then the whole conversations becomes muddled. It is true, after all, that Balaam’s donkey rebuked but to make him a type of Christ because Jesus rebuked too seems a stretch. So a real tension exists for those of us not infallible and inspired in the same way that the apostles were.

Why does this matter? That’s an important question to ask. Many will be inclined just to read their Bibles and forget this whole discussion. But the point I am trying to illuminate here is that this whole discussion affects the way we read the Bible. If Jesus says that the whole Bible is about him (Luke 24:27), then it is our job as students of the Scriptures to figure out how the whole Bible is about him. How does Samson point us to Christ? How does the conquest of Jericho point to Christ? How does Ezekiel 34 point to Jesus? We must search out the Scriptures and that partly involves, then, having some interpretive grid through which to look at the Scriptures. I feel safest as an advocate of the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture if I adopt the interpretive process of the apostles.

Perhaps one way of avoiding some of the difficulty of making everything a type is to think more in terms of illustrations. In an exchange, Dr. Frame once said to me:

The word “type” has taken on some portentous connotations, so I prefer to think of “illustrations,” as we commonly use them in sermons and lessons. Scripture does not describe Joseph as a “type” of Christ, but he is certainly parallel to Christ in many of the decisions he makes and many of the blessings of God upon him. At the very least, we may certainly see Joseph as an “illustration” of Jesus. In the same way, every righteous person is a type of Jesus, simply because the nature of righteousness in Christ in us.

It’s helpful, then, if we think more in terms of illustrations. The various persons, places, events, and institutions of the Old Testament can be illustrations of Christ and of his redemptive work. As a follower, then, of the apostles’ method – and not merely a consumer of their information – I am reading the Bible with an eye towards these “illustrations.” If I don’t do this, if I don’t read the Bible the way the apostles did, then I will end up reading it in ways that God has not designed and I will miss the whole point of Moses and the Prophets. Something Jesus rebuked his followers for doing (Luke 24:25).

The trouble with typology is one of methodology. But maybe I can circumvent this trouble if I just think more generically about the concept of illustrations. To look for “types” may be too specific a task to accomplish apart from the Spirit’s inspiration. But identifying illustrations is possible. The whole Bible is about Jesus; if I follow the practice of the apostles then I am looking for Christ everywhere in Scripture, and I can accomplish that goal because he is, in fact, everywhere in Scripture.

David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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