“Storied Typology” – A possibly more biblical way of thinking about the relationship between the OT & NT

In the earlier post, I had sketched Matthew Boulton’s argument for a subsessionist typology in his recent article “Supersession or Subsession? Exodus Typology, the Christian Eucharist and the Jewish Passover Meal” in SJT (66[1]: 18-29 [2013]).

In that article Boulton wishes to correct the supersessionist Tendenz in the use of typology by biblical theologians. Rather than a “triumphalist ‘prophecy-fulfillment’ arrangement in which the ‘old’ is only valuable insofar as it serves as a signpost pointing to the ‘new’”, Boulton presents an innovative “paradigm-rendition” typology in which the “new performance is clarified and authenticated precisely insofar as it corresponds to the old, exalted original”.

The new event is in the shape of the archetype and thereby embodying its importance. The idea is that the new event’s significance is dependent on the significance of the old event. The new event is “another manifestation of the basic archetype”. The new derives significance in relation to the old.

This is an important contribution. And indeed I think Boulton is right. But this is not the full story because significance can be derived from  elsewhere; in the case of the New Testament specifically its eschatological position. For although the new “event” is shaped by the old and derives its meaning from the old, it is nevertheless an eschatological manifestation. In other words, from the viewpoint of the NT authors, the events surrounding the incarnation of God in Jesus Israel’s Messiah is not simply or merely “another manifestation”. For them the advent of the Messiah, primarily the event of his resurrection, was the final manifestation bringing about a new era in history.

Is this supersession? Does the new supersede the old? I think it depends on how you define “supersede”. If by supersede one means what Boulton described – the conventional approach – than such supersession is improper. The old is not merely a sign whose sole purpose is to point forward to the new. It of course can be seen as such in retrospect. But the story elements of the Hebrew Scriptures are irreplaceable blocks of the story. This is where I think narratology has potential to assist in understanding the way the Christian canon works.

Admittedly, I’m just beginning to work this out, but if we think of Bible as Story and we read the earlier bits as indispensible building blocks in the narrative development toward its resolution than there’s no need to denigrate the earlier in view of the later bits of the story. Each part has its place in the story bringing it to its final act, although even this analogy must be carefully delimited. Because “final” in this sense does not mean “The End, but a new stage of the story. So because of the earlier blocks of the story, later scenes and characters become “narratological necessities” (to quote my good friend Daniel Kirk). Furthermore, if there is something of an “incompleteness” to the earlier parts of the story, it is incomplete only as earlier scenes are incomplete without subsequent ones. It is correct then to see the Bible’s story as progressive. In Stephen Wellum’s words, “it is a word-act revelation that is progressively given” (Kingdom Through Covenant, 90). Instead of using the label “progressive revelation” it may be more useful in stressing the storied nature of the development to call it “storied revelation”- Scripture is a story that unfolds. All of this, of course assumes that God has generated His Story and that story is contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Christian canon.

So in sum what I don’t like about conventional typology in biblical theology is:

1. The common approach does not reflect the way the New Testament itself deals with the story of Israel.

2. New Testament authors don’t comprehensively read the Bible the way typology is commonly practiced, although some elements reflect this kind of move (e.g. Aaronic priesthood replaced by the Melchizedekian priesthood [Heb 7]).

3. Typological interpretation of the conventional sort overrides the storied nature of the Bible.

I am sympathetic, then, with Boulton’s critique and find much to commend in his innovation. However, I don’t think he has accounted appropriately for the eschatological perspective of Jesus or the New Testament authors. He presents the Eucharist as “another Passover” which is “a meal standing underneath that familiar mantle, marked by the divine signature” (28). Indeed, the Eucharist stands coordinate to the Passover, wearing its mantle, having its divine signature; but, more than that, for Jesus it is the eschatological Passover ushering in the new Messianic age. So it isn’t just “another”; the significance of the Eucharist is derived from its relationship to Passover, but also its eschatological position. Jesus would not have anticipated another Passover after the Messianic banquet.

In conclusion, I suggest we use the term “storied typology” to describe the typology at work in the New Testament. This phrase represents the strengths in Boulton’s thesis, but avoids his weaknesses by better grasping the fullness of the later scenes of the God’s story as the New Testament understands them.

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  • Caio Peres

    Pretty good. I’ve been thinking about that from different perspectives. I had to deal with that while thinking of Zechariah’s use of earlier prophecies and how he deals with the question of fulfillment of those prophecies in his postexilic context. Of course I had to go beyond typology, spiritualization and sensus plenior kind of thinking. Two things that I came across in my study that I didn’t see you mentioning though was the perspective of apocalyptic thought that sees history as a some kind of repetition. Not like a circular way of seing history, but a vision that sees repetition of patterns, specially while dealing with powerful (imperial) manifestations. The OT already does that when considering the sin of Israel, that seems to be manifestations of old patterns (sometimes in downhill spiral, like in Judges). But it also does that in the positive way, for example, the way preexilic prophets saw the future return of exile as a new exodus. As the sin pattern repeats, the redemption pattern kind of repeats as well. The other thing is that historical events gain more significance or they are better revealed, after the new patterns are presented and interpreted anew by the later prophets. It’s some how related to what you said about “storied revelation”, but it gives more importance to the interpretation of the historical events. That’s what I see in the later prophets and how they reinterpret the prophecies of earlier prophets according to the new events (a little hinge on eschatological thought). And that’s the kind of thing I see the NT authors doing as well. According to the new events, the old ones are not over or superseded, they receive a fresch interpretation that values even more its historical importance (even more, as you said, when eschatological thought comes to the fore of the interpretation).

    • jwillitts

      Thank you for these thoughts. I think apocalyptic outlook is important.

  • Thomas Renz

    I had been puzzled about your apparent attempt in an earlier post to minimize the use of typology in biblical theology and find this contribution re-assuring. I wonder whether “storied typology” is all that different from what the likes of A.B. Davidson, E.W. Hengstenberg, F. Delitzsch and P. Fairbairn were doing – and, at its maximalist end, James Jordan is doing today. Maybe it was the more recent typologists you read (Gentry & Wellum, whom I have not read?) who had lost the plot rather than traditional hermeneutics?

    • jwillitts

      Thanks, honestly I’ve not interacted with these earlier works. Perhaps you are right. I think those I’ve read recently are evangelical perspectives from evangelical publishers.

  • Thomas Renz

    Because Christ brings the decisive manifestation of the pattern in a way which is a true game-changer, it may be impossible to avoid an element of “supersession”. I have tended to stress continuity but I am preaching through Galatians at the moment – see http://www.stmarymh.co.uk/galatians – and learning to take the eschatological element in Galatians more seriously.

  • Chris Porter

    Perhaps instead of a super/subsession argument, the direction we should be going (and where i think you are going) is a type of parallel expansion. To borrow from memory theory for a second, the eschatological type uses the archetype as a prime that invests meaning into the eschatological type as a whole, which is subsequently expanded upon.

  • Matthew Myer Boulton

    Thanks for this kind and stimulating response to my article. For what it’s worth, I like the “storied typology” approach — very promising indeed.

    Two responses: First, I have no intention of advancing a “just another” interpretation of the Eucharist, as you put it — that meal’s significance can hardly be overstated in Christian life. The point is that the Eucharist’s significance in no way correlates to any kind of demotion or subordination of the Passover tradition; on the contrary, affirming the Eucharist means affirming the Passover tradition at one and the same time, and so supersession is utterly out of place in Christian thought. Affirming a rendition of an exalted paradigm need not entail the idea that it is “just another” rendition of it, and I join you in your resistance to any insertion of the qualifier “just” in this case.

    Second, I agree that the Eucharist is properly understood as eschatological — but it is awkward and untenable to claim this status for the Eucharist alone and not also, mutatis mutandis, for the ancient Passover tradition that precedes and informs it. The Passover is eschatological, too. That is, these events manifest something of the culmination of all things; they provide “foretastes” of those culminations. The institution of the Eucharist (and Jesus Christ’s advent itself) does inaugurate a new Messianic age — but it is not final. There is still the second advent to come. You write, “Jesus would not have anticipated another Passover after the Messianic banquet” — but on the contrary, the meal tradition inaugurated in that upper room itself is a foretaste of the ultimate Messianic banquet (“until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom”). The Eucharist is already, but it is also not yet. And so is Passover.

    Incidentally, I take it that this second point is very much in keeping with your whole “storied typology” approach: that is, even and especially current Christian practices are themselves typological for what is to come, i.e., when the whole story comes to its fullness and completion.

    Again, with my thanks,

    Matthew Myer Boulton

    President and Professor of Theology
    Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis