More thoughts on Typology in Biblical Theology

As a follow up to my earlier post on Biblical Theology, I wonder if anyone else has come across a very interesting article in the Scottish Journal of Theology by Matthew Myer Boulton. The article is titled: “Supersession or Subsession? Exodus Typology, the Christian Eucharist and the Jewish Passover Meal” (66[1]: 18-29 [2013]). I don’t know Matthew, but it’s a very interesting suggestion he makes.

In a relatively brief article Boulton offers an alternative typology to the typical supersessionist one (which I refered to in the earlier post) which he labels subsessionist – I’m not sure the term will catch on.

Here’s how he says it in the abstract

I propose a subsessionist (as opposed to supersessionist) typological understanding of the Eucharist as a Christian rendition of Passover, at once distinct from its Jewish counterparts today and utterly dependent on the ancient Israelite festival for its intelligibility and force . . . the typology at play here, then so far from being a triumphalist ‘prophecy-fulfilment’ arrangement in which the ‘old’ is valuable only insofar as it serves as a signpost pointing to the ‘new’, is rather a ‘paradigm-rendition’ typology in which the new performance is clarified and authenticated precisely insofar as it corresponds to the old, exalted original (18).

Boulton opens the essay with a provocative analogy. He draws a comparison between Christian typology and something the then Senator Barak Obama did with Abraham Lincoln in the February 2007  speech announcing his candidacy for President on the steps of the Old State Capital in Springfield, IL. I know for some even the mention of Obama will not please. But it is a very interesting analogy and worth considering.

Boulton examines Obama’s use of Lincoln and describes it as ‘typological, performative [meaning mostly non-verbal - its location and date] and subsessionist”, and this as a way to suggest a fresh approach to typology, particularly with respect to the Eucharist.

Here are some of Boulton’s analyses of Obama’s use of Lincoln:

This performative, largely non-verbal typological figure does not conform particularly well to the garden-variety definition of typology commonly found in Christian sources . . . the event did not cast President Lincoln as somehow prophetic in relation to Obama’s own candidacy, nor did Obama cast himself as somehow superseding or superordinate to President Lincoln. On the contrary, Obama did two things: first, he cast himself precisely as a subordinate to Lincoln, in the sense of ‘standing in his shadow’, or ‘walking in his footsteps’. And second, Obama cast himself as coordinate to Lincoln, in the sense of being a contemporary version of him for another age – colloquially, we might say ‘another Lincoln’ . . . a ‘new Lincoln’ relies for his own credibility and legitimacy on the ‘original Lincoln’ of old (20-21).

In this sense, the typological figure involved no claim to supersession – and in fact, to sharpen the point, any claim to supersession would have seriously undermined the rhetorical move, since the move depends on exalting the mantel under which one claims to stand. Not supersession, then but rather the reverse: call it ‘subsession’. That is, Obama’s manoeuvre involved laying claim to a position underneath, so to speak, a particular mythohistorical pedigree and paradigm, precisely as a contemporary version of it for a new day . . . the present and the future are framed under the terms of the familiar, cherished, prestigious past. Call it not supersessionist, but rather subsessionistic typology (21).

Boulton argues in the essay that what Obama did with Lincoln, Jesus and the Gospel writers did with the Passover. How does he make such a claim? By showing it from the Hebrew Bible itself and the way typologically uses the exodus. Depending on the work of Michael Fishbane and Yair Zakovitch, Boulton attempts to show that the Passover is paradigmatic for the Eucharist in ways similar to Lincoln in Obama’s speech.

He says, “the key terms [in the Hebrew Bible for both Fishbane and Zakovitch] for conceiving of the relation between the exodus from Egypt and other remembered and anticipated redemptions are these: “concord”, “correspondence”, “paradigm”, “pattern” . . . If Isaiah’s new exodus is prophesied in terms of the old exodus, this is by no means to supersede the old event, but rather precisely to subsede it, that is, to narrate the new exodus as another manifestation of the basic archetype of salvation already revealed as the “once and future power of the Lord of history” . . . the divine signature of authenticity, we might say, is correspondence with the exodus motif” (25).

What do you make of this argument? I’ll provide my own response in a later post.

  • Jeremy Wales

    I haven’t read Boulton’s article but your summary makes we want to. However, I suspect I’ll end up disagreeing with Boulton’s “subcessionist” conception of typology. Isaiah’s ‘new exodus’ is explicitly contrasted with the ‘old exodus’ as putting the latter into the pale (e.g. Is 43.18-21). It is explicitly *super*cessionist. In that sense supercession is aniticipated and proclaimed by the Hebrew Bible itself. Similarly, the Christian eucharist explicitly claims to commemorate the establishment of a “new covenant”, the *better* covenant anticipated by Jer 31:31-34. Given this, I think it would be better to argue that supercession need not imply any denigration of that which is superceeded. The claim of the Hebrew Bible in anticipation, and the claim of the New Testament in fulfillment, is not that bad things have been superceded by OK things. It is that previous, truly great things have not been merely replicated but have in fact even been *surpassed* and so superceded in Jesus. We *need* to maintain that *all* the anticipations of Jesus in Israel’s history were in fact truly great *in themselves*, even if superceded in Jesus now, or else by understanding Jesus in relation to them we risk damning Jesus with faint praise. Anyway, just some first thoughts.

  • Weber Hsu

    I agree with Jeremy – the typological distinctions of ‘supercession’ and ‘subcession’ is probably not an either/or proposition. Like Jeremy I also want to read his article and his treatment of the gospels see what he does with with his position. My apology for my ignorance thus tabled, it feels that the coming of the Messiah is in the midst of a apocalyptic crisis as envisioned by the prophetic literature (example as given in Jeremy’s post), such that the expectations given are a new exodus in cosmic and creational categories, neither of which I’m saying is absent from (the original) exodus, but is certainly heightened in the gospels. First thoughts to blunder into my head (which has been in the book of Hebrews the last 8+ weeks).

  • Mike Farley

    The term supersession continues to be used without clear definition. It’s not clear to me that historic Christian uses of the promise-fulfillment relation are “triumphalist” in any negative sense or actually deny what Boulton describes as subsession.

    The Lord’s Supper does not render the Passover irrelevant, but it does seem to me that its celebration has a higher value for the people of God in the present age. The Passover was indeed a sacramental event commemorating God’s redemption of his people in the mighty acts of the exodus narrative and celebrating his ongoing and very real redeeming presence and power with his people in later generations. Furthermore, the OT is an indispensable part of the Christian canon. It is a revelation of God that is all about the Christ (as Jesus said in Luke 24), and thus it provides the necessary historical and theological revelation needed for us to know and understand God’s revelation in Christ as recorded in the New Testament. Therefore, the OT witness to the Passover remains part of the necessary background for understanding the meaning and function of the Lord’s Supper. However, there clearly has been progression in redemptive history that does make the Lord’s Supper more important in the present era than the Passover. The Lord’s Supper is now the chief sacred sacramental meal in the corporate worship of Israel i.e., eschatological Israel, which is the Christian church, the body of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is commanded for the people of God, whereas Passover is now, at most, only an optional celebration. The Lord’s Supper is the meal that Jesus commands for the church to be the liturgical meal of the new covenant, and it is suited for that specific purpose. The Passover, while it is one (but only one) of the many OT rituals that provide the interpretive background for the Lord’s Supper, was designed for a prior era of redemptive history. It is no longer the normative sacramental meal for the current era of redemptive history.

    To suggest that the Passover and the Lord’s Supper have equal abiding value and importance would seem to imply a two-covenant view of the relation of Israel and the church, i.e., Israel has an ongoing covenantal relationship with God that operates in parallel to and distinction from the covenant Christians have with God in Christ. Does Boulton hold such a view?


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