What Is Typology and Why Is It Necessary?

Cross_in_sunsetThrough Bible reading and teaching of various kinds, Christians learn that there is a relationship between Jesus and sacrifices of the Old Testament, like the Passover lamb. They would agree that Jesus fulfills the Passover lamb. Somehow, the Passover lamb is prefiguring or predicting Jesus’ death, his sacrifice. What Christians are often missing is the terminology to describe the relationship between the Passover lamb and Jesus. In this case, the Passover lamb is the Old Testament type that Jesus, its antitype, fulfills. The relationship between the Passover lamb and Jesus has to do with typology. It is a typological relationship.

Why have I never heard the term “typology”?
Why is typology a term that Christians seldom hear even in the midst of teaching about the relationship between the Passover lamb and Jesus? Two related reasons come to mind. First, seminary students are often warned that typology is something that we should avoid, because of its abuse in certain writings of the Church Fathers. It is often associated with arbitrary, fanciful interpretations and connected to allegorical interpretation. Second, many teachers who talk about typology in the contemporary church demonstrate the dangers of typology by following the bad examples that they have been exposed to. They point to multiple connections between an Old Testament character, like Joseph, and Jesus. However, their connections fail to be convincing and cast an ugly shadow upon typology.

So, why not jettison typology altogether?
We cannot jettison typology (even if we call it something else), because many of the uses of the Old Testament in the New Testament depend upon seeing a typological relationship. For example, all four Gospels quote or allude to Psalms 22 and 69 as they recount the death of Jesus on the cross. John 19:24 says that the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing “so that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘They divided my garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots.’” The Scripture here is Psalm 22:18. Psalm 22 is a psalm attributed to David (see the superscription of Psalm 22). In Psalm 22:18, “my garments” are David’s garments. So, how does Jesus fulfill words that David used to speak about his own suffering? The best answer is a quite traditional one. Undergirding the connection is a typological relationship between the suffering of David and the suffering of David’s greater son, Jesus the Messiah.

In upcoming posts, I will provide further examples of typology and explain what typology is and what it is not.

That Scripture Might be Fulfilled: Typology and the Death of ChristFor a thorough introduction to typology, see Paul Hoskins, That Scripture Might be Fulfilled: Typology and the Death of Christ.