Biblical Theology without Typology?

Biblical Theology without Typology? June 6, 2013

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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