What Is Typology? Part 1

Patterns Pointing to Christ

The Bible is filled with repetition, patterns, and similarities. Ever since the promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15, a pattern emerges in salvation history of promise-fulfillment. At many stages of the Bible, there seems to shine forth a pattern of a redeemer who gives temporary relief to God’s people, but ends up failing. Adam was meant to maintain the Garden of Eden—the place of God’s presence—and guard and keep it, but he sinned. So God promised there would be judgment on the serpent and life from Eve’s male offspring (Gen 3:15, 20).

Lamech believed Noah would give relief (5:29). And he did obey God and through him a remnant of mankind survived along with other creatures. But he too failed and fell drunk and lay naked and exposed in shame (9:21) and later died, which rendered him unable to give his people rest (9:29).

Later, Moses came and led the people out of oppression in Egypt. Rest and deliverance looked like it would truly come from Moses. But Moses expressed unbelief and and could not lead God’s people into the Promised Land (Num 20:10–12), and so died outside of the land (Deut 34:5).

Joshua, whose name means, “Yahweh saves,” led the people into and conquered the land and they and the land had an initial rest (Josh 11:23; 14:15; 21:44). But as the author of Hebrews (3:7–4:11) points out from Psalm 95, Joshua did not lead them to an ultimate rest (Heb 4:8–9).

Likewise, David comes in and ushers in a more stable kingdom and gave relief to the people and defeated the Philistines, and was victorious wherever he went (2 Sam 8:1, 14–15). God established with him a covenant that would entail the eternity of David’s kingdom. Certainly, it seems that David would be this long-awaited redeemer. But despite David’s great obedience and longing for the Lord, he too would greatly sin through murder and adultery (2 Sam 11).

Nevertheless, because God made a covenant with David (2 Sam 7), David’s throne would last, and his son would rule forever. The patterns of these people reveal aspects of deliverance and redemption. But they could never effect a sure and lasting one. All these people pointed to a greater person who could bring a lasting salvation.

We could see this pattern in many other people, but we could also see similarities and patterns of redemption in many other events, for example, exile and exodus. Further, we can see such redemptive tones in the patterns of the institutions: Passover lamb, sacrificial system, tabernacle/temple, or priesthood to name a few. All these institutions set a template and pattern that enacted aspects of redemption, but none of these could truly save the people. These institutions, just like previous events and persons, all set up a pattern and paradigm that pointed to a greater salvation that Jesus brings.

What Is Typology?

All the patterns of redemption point to Jesus. Each part of the pattern contains similarities of deliverance, and each part fails to secure salvation. As the story of the Bible—redemptive history—progresses, so too does the pattern that emerges forth from the promise of redemption. Each part of the pattern somehow points forward to the fulfillment of the pattern and promise, and as the story unfolds, the patten progresses, and more insight can be gained. When we study the parts of the pattern that all point to Jesus, we do what is called “typology.”

What is typology? I remember once at a small group in my college years, I used the word, “typology,” and someone responded, “What? You can’t just put ‘ology’ at the end of a word and think it’s a study of something.” Regardless of the doubts, typology is a real thing and often acts as an important backbone in OT interpretation. Indeed, it is often key for understanding OT realities and even the NT use of OT texts. The value of typology cannot be underestimated. But, once again, what is typology?

Definition(s)

Trying to define typology is like trying to define a shadow—it’s very difficult, because in a sense it’s something that refers not to itself, but to another thing. It’s much easier to point to a shadow and say, “that’s a shadow.” Further, definitions of typology are many—not to mention that scholars in different circles propose differing views of typology. I will stick with the traditional approach to typology. 

Typology, simply stated, is the study of “types.” A “type” can be an OT person, event, or institution that foreshadows or prefigures a NT reality in which the type finds fulfillment—particularly, ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s person, work, and benefits of his accomplishment. And so, typology studies both the OT “type” that foreshadows and its NT fulfillment (i.e., the antitype). Here are six helpful definitions of typology: 

Gentry and Wellum: Typology is the study of Old Testament redemptive-historical realities or “types” (persons, events, institutions) that God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure, their intensified antitypical fulfillment aspects . . . in the New testament redemptive history.[1]

Beale: The study of analogical correspondences among revealed truths about persons, events, institutions, and other things within the historical framework of God’s special revelation, which, from a retrospective view, are of a prophetic nature and are escalated in their meaning.[2]

Naselli: Typology analyzes how New Testament persons, events, and institutions (i.e., antitypes) fulfill Old Testament persons, events, and institutions (i.e., types) by repeating the Old Testament situations at a deeper, climactic level in salvation history.[3]

Parker: Typology is the study of how OT historical persons, events, institutions, and settings function to foreshadow, anticipate, prefigure, and predict the greater realities in the new covenant age.[4]

Davidson: The study of certain OT salvation-historical realities (persons, events, or institutions) which God specifically designed to correspond to, and be prospective-predictive prefigurations of, their . . . absolutely escalated eschatological fulfillment aspects . . . within NT salvation history.[5]

Conclusion

Now that we have a basic understanding of what typology is, we can give further details on the elements and characteristics of a “type.” Come back tomorrow (Wednesday) to see part 2.



[1]Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 130.

[2]G.K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 14.

[3]Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017),252.

[4]Brent E. Parker, “The Israel-Christ-Church Relationship,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 47–48.

[5]Davidson, Typology in Scripture, 421.