What Is Typology? Definition and Its Relationship to Biblical Theology

TAU_(capital_and_small) croppedIn previous posts, I introduced the idea that typology is important and provided two examples, but I have not yet defined typology. It seems appropriate to provide a working definition of typology and clarification of its place in biblical theology. Defining typology is an important endeavor, because typology is understood and defined in a few different ways in contemporary writings.  Since understanding the New Testament is our primary goal, it will be our guide as to the essential elements to include in our definition and description of typology.

1. Definition of typology. Typology is the aspect of biblical interpretation that treats the significance of Old Testament types for prefiguring corresponding New Testament antitypes or fulfillments. Events (like the Exodus), persons (like David), or institutions (like the Temple) are common categories for Old Testament types. This definition brings together three related characteristics of the relationship between a type and its antitype. First, an Old Testament type prefigures its New Testament antitype. Second, in order to prefigure its antitype, a type possesses certain significant correspondences or similarities to its antitype. Third, as the fulfillment or goal of the imperfect type, the antitype will be greater than the type that anticipated it.

2. Typology and biblical theology.To clarify the points of this definition, we will start with an overview, because typology rests upon a basic understanding of God’s work in history and of the inspiration of the Scriptures. In Old Testament times, God was at work shepherding and delivering his people. He was simultaneously tracing in that very work patterns or types that prefigure his later saving work in Christ, the church, the end events, and the New Jerusalem. God was also inspiring the Scriptures to be written in a way that would preserve a record of Old Testament types and anticipate their predictive significance.

Through his prophets, he sometimes identifies prominent people or events, like Moses, the Exodus, and David, as types (or patterns) for what he is going to do for his people in the future. Then, as Jesus brings about the climactic fulfillment of God’s promises in his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation, he teaches his disciples to see how he is the fulfillment of the many promises and types that anticipated him. Jesus also teaches about the fulfillment of Old Testament promises and types in the church and their ultimate fulfillment in the end events and the New Jerusalem. Therefore, Old Testament types are an important aspect of God’s progressive revelation of his plan for his people.

Through the Old Testament types, God was accomplishing important aspects of his work. He was simultaneously using types as one of his means to predict later aspects of his work. Many types point to Christ, because he is such an important part of God’s plan. One also finds types that point to the church, the end events, and the New Jerusalem, because these also lie on and conclude the route to the final realization of God’s plan for his people. Jesus, the church, and the New Jerusalem are closely related.

3. Typology involves similarities and dissimilarities. Some contemporary works define typology primarily in terms of the repetition of analogous or similar acts of God in history. Traditionally, however, interpreters have noted that the relationship between types and antitypes necessarily involves points of similarity as well as points of dissimilarity. Due to the very nature of a type (or pattern), there must be significant points of correspondence or similarity between a type and its antitype. In other words, the antitype must show noteworthy conformity to the type. Yet an antitype is not merely an analogous recurrence or repetition of the type that preceded it. The New Testament does not present the relationship between type and antitype in this way. Instead, the antitype fulfills or completes the type (Luke 22:16; John 19:24, 28) or the type is the imperfect shadow of the reality, its antitype (Hebrews 10:1). Consequently, significant dissimilarities exist between type and antitype, because an antitype is going to be greater than the imperfect type that prefigured it. The antitype is the goal, fulfillment, or reality that the type anticipated.

These are some of the basic aspects of typology. In future posts, we will look further at important aspects of typology.

That Scripture Might be Fulfilled: Typology and the Death of ChristThe post above is an abridged version of pp. 20-23 of Paul Hoskins, That Scripture Might be Fulfilled: Typology and the Death of Christ.