The method by which Christians interpret the Bible will immeasurably determine the richness with which we understand the Scriptures. Entrance to the vast storehouses of the Word of God will be thrown open to us by our approach to Scripture. Our method of interpretation will dictate our theology, and our theology will mold our hearts and minds for God. This spiritual principle is no more true than in the area of Biblical typology. Typology is the practice, by writers of Scripture, of using a truth found in the Old Testament and applying it to persons, places, and things in the New Testament in order to teach rich spiritual lessons concerning God’s grace and power. However, typical interpretation must not be mistaken for allegorical interpretation. Typology is based upon the clear teaching of Scripture, whereas allegorical interpretation is subject to the imaginative whim and fancy of the interpreter to supply any meaning he wishes. For example, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604AD), in his exposition on the book of Job entitled Moralia, set forth that the talkative friends of Job represented heretics; Job’s seven sons represented the twelve Apostles; his seven thousand sheep represented God’s faithful people; and the three thousand hump-backed camels the depraved Gentiles. This vividly illustrates the inherent dangers in the allegorical method of interpretation.
A Reasoned Defense of Biblical Typology
Some have taught that typology is the forcing of a particular view of theology upon the plain teaching of Scripture. Some have suggested that Biblical typology is an excessive, fanciful, and uncritical approach to Bible study. Representative of this view is former Professor of Theology at the University of Manchester, Samuel Arthur Peake(1865-1929), the textual critic and commentator, who wrote, “What value for spiritual life can we find in the minute liturgical and ceremonial details of the Tabernacle and its service?” (1) In regard to the views of those who oppose the use of balanced typology, we must submit that we humbly differ. The study of types is essential in understanding crucial portions of the Word of God. Without the careful and balanced use of typical interpretation portions of the New and Old Testaments would be an immensely rich but unopened spiritual treasure. Many good Bible students have ably and forcibly defended the validity of the study of types. A respected authority on the subject of Bible interpretation, Bernard Ramm, in his classic work Protestant Biblical Interpretation, writes, “It has been the contention of critics that typology is forced exegesis rather than an interpretation rising naturally out of the Scriptures. However, excesses—past and present—do not destroy the Christian contention that the typological method of interpretation is valid.” (2) To state that the study of types is simply a permissible and valid approach to Bible study is to understate the issue. More than merely a valid approach, the study of typology is essential and foundational to the right understanding of Holy Scripture. The careful and trusted Bible expositor, J. Sidlow Baxter, is very helpful at this point as he writes, “Nothing in the Old Testament literature is more wonderful than its latent typical content. To deny its presence there is to repudiate the clear sanction of the New Testament. Romans 5:14 expressly declares that Adam was a type (tupos) of Christ…This inhering type-content makes the Old Testament endlessly fascinating, and is proof demonstrable of divine inspiration. All genuine prediction of future events is exclusively divine…yet however arresting may be prediction by word, the most astounding is prediction by type.” (3)
Guardrails for Balanced Typology
Some have pressed typological study so far that they, in the process, have trivialized this valued aspect of biblical interpretation. The balanced and careful study of typology will prove to be spiritually fruitful and immensely satisfying to the serious Christian. However, there are a number of pitfalls that must be ardently avoided in the balanced study of types. Firstly, we must not prohibit a type, and fall into the danger of not using a type at all. Secondly, we must not overstate a type, and slip into the error overusing it. Thirdly, we must not imagine a type and therefore commit the mistakeof abusing a type. We must guard against the notion that every mention of wood in the Old Testament is a type of the cross and every pool of water is a type of baptism. Godly men of the Book have given us some sound guidelines to help us avoid these pitfalls . Firstly, a type should have correspondence. That is, an Old Testament example must have a New Testament counterpart. Secondly, a type should be historical. That is, an Old Testament type and the New Testament counterpart should both be found in the record of Scripture. Otherwise, typology study ceases to be typology and enters the realm of allegory. Thirdly, a type must be predictive. That is, an Old Testament type looks forward to the New Testament for its fulfillment or “anti-type”. A type is frequently Christ-centered. That is, it looks forward for its fulfillment to an aspect of the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally in typology, the anti-type is spiritually greater than and superior to the type. There is an increase, a heightening, an elevation of spiritual truth in the fulfillment. Christ is superior to Melchizedek. Christ, in His redemptive work as the Lamb of God, is greater than the Old Testament type of the Passover lamb. Moreover, the study of typology is crucial to our understanding of the full counsel of God. Without the use of typological interpretation, weighty portions of the Word of God would be closed to us. This is no more true than in the study of the offerings in the early chapters of the book of Leviticus. The type of the sin offering is of great importance, for it unfolds God’s method of judging sin. Moses tells us that a sin offering could be brought if “a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the Lord” (4:2). The sin offering, in type, looks forward to its antitype, the greater Sin Offering—the Lord Jesus Christ. The Levitical sin offering provided forgiveness for some sin; the greater Sin Offering provided the infinite payment price for all sin. If the sin that was committed was a wilful sin, a presumptuous sin, there was no recourse according to the law, for there was no provision in the law for such a sin. In Numbers we read, “...the soul that does anything presumptuously…that soul shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him” (15:30). The law did not make provision for wilful sin. This point becomes crucial when we come to Psalm 19:12-13 where we read again of sins of ignorance and wilful sins. The Psalmist writes, “Who can understand his errors?” (19:12). The Hebrew word for “errors ” (Shegogoh) here is the same word used in Leviticus 4:2, meaning a sin of ignorance. Then, he prays, “Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins” (19:13). King David, in baring his soul, speaks of the mystery and crushing burden of sins of ignorance; but when he speaks of wilful sins, his language becomes more urgent, as he pleads, “Keep thy servant from presumptuous sin”. The King knew there was no provision in the law for wilful sin, so the avoidance of wilful sin was of great concern. Would one understand Psalm 19 fully if he did not understand the Levitical offerings? If a Christian is not familiar with the Levitical offerings, the great conclusion of Psalm 19 unfortunately would be a closed portion of the Scriptures.
Biblical Typology and the Grace of God
Further in the Psalms, David takes up this wonderful theme again. David continues the subject of ignorant and wilful sin in Psalm 32. In this “Maschil” psalm, a psalm of instruction about sin, the Psalmist-King clarifies a crucial truth about wilful sin. He writes, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven…” (32:1). F. W. Grant, in his commentary on the Psalms, explains that the meaning of the word translated “transgression” has the force of “willful rebellion”. (4) We now come to a crossroad in interpretation: how is it possible for the sin of wilful rebellion to be forgiven? The law made no provision for wilful sin, yet David’s wilful sin was forgiven. The solution is found in the infinite and unequaled grace of God. David did not look at the limited provisions in the law, but rather to the unlimited provisions found in the mercy and grace of a Sovereign God. He traces this grace of God, “I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (32:5 NKJV). The stress and source of forgiveness is upon the “Lord” and His forgiveness; “and You forgave…” . The law made no provision for wilful sin, but with God there is full provision for the forgiveness of sin. The true Sin Offering, in His finished work on the cross displayed the all-sufficient grace of God for all men. Again, without a knowledge of the typology of the Levitical offerings, this crucial part of Psalm 32 would be a closed book. The Spirit of God, it seems, loves to make use of this Levitical type again and again. We find it yet again , but this time in the New Testament book of Acts, where it is used to unveil yet another truth about wilful and ignorant sin. We read, “ ...killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead…and now brethren, I know that through ignorance ye did it” (Acts 3:15, 17). Here, the emphasis is not on wilful sin, but upon a sin of ignorance. If the Lord Jesus Christ had been killed with forethought and purpose, there was no provision in the law for forgiveness. However, the divine Author of Scripture states the verdict of heaven: the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified in ignorance. Now, the typology of the Levitical sin offering becomes exceedingly important. If a soul sinned in ignorance, there was provision for him in the sin offering. The intelligent Jew clearly understood the subtle nuance of this statement. They had sinned in a grievous way, but it was a sin of ignorance. The door of forgiveness now was thrown wide open by God Himself. Forgiveness was being graciously extended by a God of infinite grace to those who had committed a grievous offense. Beloved Bible teacher H. A. Ironside states its importance, “There was no offering for wilful sin under the law. It was only for sins of ignorance. You remember Peter’s words to guilty Israel as bringing home to them their dreadful sin in crucifying the Lord of Glory. He says, ‘I know that it was through ignorance ye did it.’ What wonderful grace is displayed here! The very worst sin that has ever been committed in the history of the world is classed as a sin of ignorance! He opens the door of infinite mercy to one who has sinned ignorantly.” (5)
The Challenge of Biblical Typology
The unity of the Old and New Testaments is beautifully set forth with types and antitypes, shadows and fulfillments. The typological nature of the Scriptures is a great proof of divine inspiration. The New Testament is a deep well teeming with words which speak of its typological nature : “Example” (Hypoeigma) ; “Type” (Tupos) ; “Shadow” (Skia) ; “Placing side by side” (Parabole) ; “Figure” (Eikon) ; “Antitype” (Antitupon). These words establish the typical nature of the Bible. Additionally, the stress of the entire book of Hebrews is that Christ is the “better” fulfillment of types in the Old Testament. The great wealth of types in the Old Testament, the invitation of our Lord Jesus Christ to find Him in the Old Testament, and the typical language of the New Testament provides abundant justification for the importance of typological Bible study. May we take seriously the admonition of the Lord Jesus Christ, “...search the Scriptures…these are they which testify of Me.”
(1) Samuel A. Peake, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (London : Thomas Nelson, 1962), p. 5
(2) Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, (Boston, MA : W. A. Wilde Co., 1956), p. 196
(3) J. Sidlow Baxter, The Strategic Grasp of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI : Kregel , 1991), p. 131-132
(4) F. W. Grant, Numerical Bible, Psalms, (New York, NY : Loizeaux, 1897), p. 140
(5) H. A. Ironside, Levitical Offerings, ( New York, NY : Loizeaux, 1979), p. 55