How do we study the Bible? – Typology

Like most of these posts, this is a topic which I’m not qualified to write about. But like any good random blogger, I’ll write about it anyway and hopefully do it justice.

All Christians recognize the Scriptures—the Bible—as sacred and authoritative. And yet there is widespread disagreement about its meaning. Why is this? I believe it is because people use different methods of interpretation. How we read Scripture is just as important as simply reading it; perhaps more important. This was a point of concern for both the Jews and early Christians, between each other as well as among themselves (see the talk by Fr. Mitch Pacwa here on Scripture and the Early Church). We can’t simply read Scripture and expect to understand it, as if the Bible is some sort of handbook for Christianity.

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For example, it’s easy to condemn Catholic statues by pointing out the commandment forbidding graven images of any likeness of anything that is in heaven or on earth (Ex. 20:4). But then things get a bit murky when God Himself commands the making of graven images in the likeness of heavenly and earthly things; the gold cherubim atop the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:18-19), the images of cherubim in the tabernacle (Ex. 26:1), the bronze serpent in Numbers 21 (through which also a miracle occurred). So what’s happening with the commandment against graven images? What is God actually saying? This example reveals that it’s often not as simple as pointing to a particular verse and saying “Ah ha!” Interpretation must include all of Scripture.

How we study the Bible is called hermeneutics. These are principles and interpretive lenses by which we gather scriptural data which are compiled into an actual theology. There several senses of scripture; the literal and the spiritual; the allegorical/typological, the moral, and the anagogical. Other rules include understanding Greek words, keeping things in context, understanding ancient culture, etc. etc. etc.

This post focuses on the typological sense because at some point during my conversion I realized it answered questions I didn’t even know existed: “Does Scripture itself give us any clues on how to interpret the Scriptures? How do the biblical authors interpret and explain Scripture?”

Well, there is a way the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament and it has come to be known as typology.

Definition of typology:

“Typology is the discernment of realities, events, deeds, words, symbols, or signs in the Bible that foreshadows the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus Christ.”[1]

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Typology can be summed up in the famous phrase, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” In typology, Old Testament “types” prefigure a deeper and more profound fulfillment in the New Testament. The type prefigures the antitype. Since typology comes straight from Scripture, one could say typology is the hermeneutics Scripture itself gives us. This makes it a very big deal.

For this reason, anyone seriously studying Scripture must put typology in a very prominent position of Biblical studies and interpretations.

A couple Scriptural examples of typology

  1. In Romans 5:12-21, Paul compares Adam and Christ. As through one man (Adam) death came to all men, so through one man (Jesus) life is offered back to all men. In this way, Adam “was a type of the one who was to come” (vs. 14).
  2. 1 Peter 3:20-21 says the flood during Noah’s time prefigured baptism. Just as Noah and his family were saved through water, so “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” The word ‘corresponds’ is from the Greek word antitypos; antitype.
  3. Christ said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17). The Old Covenant was a “type” which the New Covenant brings to fullness—the entire book of Hebrews seems focused on this, such as when it says the Old Law “has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1). Christ did not abolish the Law; He brought it to its fullness.

An important point to remember is that, within typology, the fulfillment (the antitype) is greater and better than the prefigurement (the type).

“The type always points forward to something greater that will come in a fullness given in Jesus Christ. As such, it is not enough for two realities in Scripture to be similar or to follow a certain pattern for us to speak about typology. Christian typology goes beyond the recognition of patterns in God’s saving plan to include the fulfillment in Jesus Christ as an essential aspect, where the reality prefigured is far greater than the prefiguration.”[2]

This makes sense. After all, “fulfillment” of something assumes a lack in the previous. Christ is greater than Adam. Baptism is greater than the flood, since baptism washes away actual sins and the flood could only wash away physical evil. If a typological interpretation ends with the fulfillment being less than the prefigurement, the interpretation is off somewhere and needs to be rethought.

“Typology has been the constant way of reading the Scriptures of the authors of the New Testament themselves, of the Church Fathers from the earliest times, and of the Catholic Church up to the present day.”[3]

Typology has a long tradition within Christianity and must be taken seriously by anyone seeking to understand Scripture. The New Testament must be read in light of the Old. And I think it safe to say, one will not begin understanding Catholic theology unless one begins understanding typology—at least that was my own experience.

Sources to get started in typology:

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[1] Fr. Devin Roza, “Fulfilled in Christ: The Sacraments. A Guide to Symbols and Types in the Bible and Tradition”, p. 23

[2] Roza, p. 21-22

[3] Roza, p. 23

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