Biblical Theology without Typology?

I love biblical theology. Biblical theology with its focus on the use of the OT in the NT was what was so captivating to me as I sat in a Scott Hafemann class in 1997 – perceiving the unity of the OT and the NT continues to be pursuit of my academic work. My first real academic writing (I distinguish this from just writing papers for classes) was a thesis in the TH.M. at Dallas Seminary on Heilsgeschichte (“Salvation history”) in Galatians. I can remember the first time I heard that word and came to understand its importance. Salvation History is the idea that God’s active in history and revelation is grounded on his actions in history. This is a particular history though, namely the history of God’s people Israel coming to its mid-point in the incarnation, Jesus first coming, and culminating in the coming of the kingdom of God and New Creation at the end of history. Inherent at least some approaches to biblical theology the assumption of the unity of the OT and NT, and this was the arm of the discipline I was influenced by. In those days, I devoured the leading light of Heilsgeschichte Oscar Cullmann (Salvation History and Christ in Time). I became a card-carrying proponent of Heilsgeschichte. My early publications were attempts to read Paul through the lens of Salvation History. And, on the whole, I still like my conclusions on Gal 4:21-31 and Lev 18:15 in Gal 3:12.

In recent years I’ve noticed that I’ve become suspicious of biblical theology as a discipline though. But my feelings were just that, feelings, and I’d not identified what I was uncomfortable with. It is strange because I still really love to think about the relationship between the testaments and I continue to pursue the question of the unity of the Christian canon. I’m definitely a canonically minded thinker. In addition, in more recent years, I’ve come to think of the Bible as story which has given me a new set of lens to look at the Bible as an unfolding story. I’ve begun to use narratology as a methodology for discovering unity. I think it has been this development in my own thinking that has caused me to look critically at the biblical theology of others.

But just recently I’ve come to realize what it is that makes me uncomfortable with much biblical theology today. I noticed it most clearly in two books on biblical theology published in the last year: Gentry & Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant, and Goldsworthy’s Christ-Centered Biblical Theology.

Here’s my problem. These recent scholars, and a good deal many others, use typology as the preferred method for discovering unity. Typology is an interpretive move where the reader sees in an OT person or event a prefigurement (type) of something in the NT (anti-type), e.g. Moses and Jesus. While this is not necessarily problematic, the underlying assumption that is at work very commonly depreciates (at best!!) the earlier person/event in light of the later. As Matthew Boulton put it, “the occurrence of the latter seems to render the former either obsolete, no longer necessary or, at best, still venerable but nevertheless subordinate” (SJT 66[1]: 20).

Here’s my syllogism:

Most typological interpretation is supersessionistic.
Most biblical theology uses typology.
Most biblical theology is supersessionistic.

Here’s my problem. I don’t think the apostles were supersessionists. I don’t think this is how they read the OT. And it doesn’t appear to be the way they thought about its prefigurements. Consider John 1:16-17:

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ (CEB).

In this text the Evangelist is making a typological comparison between the grace given by God through Moses and that given through Jesus. In Jewish interpretation this is a classic qal va-homer (‘ the argument from the minor to the major ‘). For the logic to work, it would make no sense to downplay or to depreciate the former in view of the latter. Such a move would only depreciate the grace now given. In other words, the higher view one has of the grace given through Moses, the greater view one will have of the grace now in and through Jesus. Clearly in the comparison the latter (grace through Jesus) is related and dependent on the grace of the former (grace through Moses). One can only appreciate greatness of the latter in view of the former.

Can biblical theology be done without a supersessionistic application of typology?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David Lindsay

    How about limiting the typology to the models already given in the NT ?

    If the apostles were not supersessionists, then biblical theology limited to their typology should not be supersessionist either.


  • Gupta Nijay

    Hi Joel. I wrestle with these concerns as well, but I cannot help but find the apostle supersessionistic, but perhaps by virtue of having the face hostility from non-Christian Jews. Basically, what I am saying is that the earliest Christian theology did not take place in a vacuum, but in the context of counter-identity formation. See Francis Watson’s work on sectarian identity. You may be interested in Richard Hays’ essay in the volume in Hebrews and Christian theology. My guess is that he is trying to work through many of the same issues you raise. His essay is called something like “Here We Have No Lasting City.”

  • Christopher Beecher

    Thanks for this article Joel. I would disagree however with how you are equating supersessionism with typological interpretation. The language in the NT that is tied to the concept of typology is more appropriately recognized as “fulfillment” language (e.g. Matt. 2:25, 5:17-18; Rom. 13:8-10) . Supersessionism sees the NT at replacing the OT rather than fulfilling it. Rather than seeing Jesus replace the OT types he fulfills them. Thus the OT types find their greater fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. Aside from this, would it not be appropriate to see Jesus as greater than all those who precede him? In my mind, such thinking would not in any way diminish the importance of the OT types but cultivate greater appreciation for their role in salvation history and underscore the organic unity of the biblical revelation. Isn’t this the focus of the book of Hebrews? Jesus is the better sacrifice, the better priest, and the better Temple? He hasn’t simply thrown them to the wayside but become that to which they pointed thus making their roles obsolete. Thanks again and grace be with you.

  • Thanks for your thoughts Joel.

    Much like what Christopher said, typology as I understand it, to use the language of Hebrews, does not see skia at odds with eikon. A form does not replace a shadow or fight against its shadow; they are organically related. The best typological interpreters have always understood the relationship between form and shadow as organic.

    I honestly don’t get the whole supersessionism charge, unless you went to a school that had a hard time understanding the unity of covenants :~)

    I know this isn’t your beef, but it seems that many evangelicals who are suspicous of typological intepretation, bracket out particular views of scripture (inspiration, divine author, etc.) in their own interpretive moves, all in the name of being objective and critical.

    It is much sexier to say that a NT author was working out of a particular Jewish interpretive tradition than to say he saw Jesus as the star of the show and that eveything pointed to him. A much more welcomed approach would be to rightly understand typology and to situtate the texts it in its proper Jewish context.

  • Grant Taylor

    Helpful thoughts and discussion.

  • Grant Taylor

    Sorry, quick trigger there…

    I think some specific reading on typology helps the discussion. R.T. France (Jesus and the Old Testament) makes the point that, in the case of typology, the predictive, foreshadowing nature of the text is a matter of OT exegesis. If an OT person, event, or institution is a type, that will only be indicated by the NT anti-type. E.g. Jesus the greater Temple. David Baker (Two Testaments, One Bible) makes the similar point that typology is primarily retrospective, not prospective. We cannot say this is a type until we have the anti-type. This need not undercut predictive prophecy, though, for as France states that may well be indicated by the OT text itself. The OT persons, events, and institutions would retain their significance on this understanding.

  • Charles Personanongrata Wiese

    Calvin really was the first to divide the Psalms up into Messianic and non-Messianic Psalms. Virtually all previous Christian commentators regarded them as being about Jesus since Jesus said all of Scripture is about him.Matthew 2:15 takes Hosea 11:1 and applies directly to Christ because Jesus is the New Israel who does what Israel could not do. He is Israel reduced to one. And you can find all kinds of examples in the NT where the Apostles find Jesus in some of the most unlikely places in the OT and the early church fathers do the same thing. In the NT Jesus becomes the literal fulfillment of what was only figuratively true of both Israel and Yahweh in the OT–not only of the prophecies but also of the descriptive language. I think the problems come in when people try to make the leap directly from Israel to the church. Rather, the idea in the NT is that Jesus is the New Israel and all who are joined to Christ are part of the New Israel. This doesn’t keep the Apostles from pitting Jesus against Moses but it doesn’t keep them from seeing Moses as a type of Moses either depending upon the subject.

    • Gary in FL

      “you can find all kinds of examples in the NT where the Apostles find Jesus in some of the most unlikely places in the OT”

      Not really. I don’t accept the author of the Gospel “according to Matthew” was actually the disciple Jesus called from the tax collector’s booth, and I don’t see Zebedee’s son being the author of the fourth Gospel. That pretty much leaves one with OT interpretations in the Pauline corpus if you seek typology employed by _Apostles_.

      “This doesn’t keep the Apostles from pitting Jesus against Moses…”

      Again, not the original apostles, but it seems more likely the late First Century Church, after it was definitely a separate stream from Judaism, would pit Jesus over/against Moses.

      But perhaps I’ve misunderstood your point.

  • Matthew Malcolm

    This is indeed a crucial question. I’d agree with others here though, that: a) typology is better understood as (especially retrospective) ‘fulfilment’ than ‘supersession’; and b) while one might wince at those who insensitively declare that the church supersedes the people of Israel, that is not the same as the claim that Jesus himself embodies a superseding covenant.