The "type" is perhaps the least understood but most important concept in the hermeneutics of biblical prophecy. Typological prophecy occurs throughout the Bible and can be considered the "normal" way that the prophets, including Jesus, spoke of the future. Failure to take this method of speaking into account can lead to gross distortions of the prophetic message.
Typology is often confused with allegorical interpretations and is sometimes wrongly labeled as "double fulfillment." It also contrasts with what is sometimes called the "literal interpretation."
Allegorism arose in pre-Christian Hellenism as a means whereby early philosophers could explain the immoral and offensive elements of the Greek myths. Scholars such as Metrodorus of Lampascus (331-278 b.c.) and Chrysippus of Soli (280-207 b.c.) used allegory to discern moral and philosophical lessons behind the bawdy stories of the gods and goddesses. Christian thinkers, particularly those of Alexandria, adopted allegorism to demonstrate the presence of Christian theological and spiritual truth in the Old Testament. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, following the trail laid by the Jewish scholar Philo, used incidental parallels and similarities to propound interpretations that were regrettably forced and alien to the text. This hermeneutic dominated Christendom through the medieval period. Books such as the Song of Songs were especially subjected to allegorism (e.g., the implied two lips 1:2 ; were taken to represent the law and gospel ), but no texts were immune from such treatment. True allegories are rare in the Bible, and when they occur, their allegorical nature is self-evident (e.g., Judges 9:7-20 ).
The idea of a "double-fulfillment" of prophecy is closer to the concept of typology, but as a hermeneutical model it is crude and imprecise. The metaphor of two mountains often accompanies the idea of double-fulfillment. The prophet is said to have seen two separate events in the future juxtaposed like two mountains, one in front of the other. The one event was much closer in time than the other, but he saw the two together through "prophetic foreshortening." This model does not explain why the two specific events were juxtaposed by the prophet; why two events rather than three, four, or five are juxtaposed; and what the basis for the "foreshortening" is.
A popular claim in some quarters is that one holds to a "literal" or a "literal where possible" hermeneutic. Those who follow this model frequently look for some single, highly specific fulfillment to a prophecy, whether it be an event in the earthly ministry of Jesus or some alleged fulfillment to come in the "great tribulation" or millennium.
Such interpretations generally face three difficulties. First, they often fail to account for the contextual meaning of a given prophecy both in the historical context of the prophet's own generation and in the literary context of the book in which the prophecy is found. In short, the prophecies are thought to address some far-off situation but are all but irrelevant to the people who first heard them and to the central messages of the books in which they are found. Second, this hermeneutic obscures the fact that every reasonable interpretation of prophecy is to some degree literal and to some degree metaphorical. Third, this hermeneutic is not followed by the New Testament itself, in that it does not demand the literalism allegedly maintained by "single fulfillment" interpretations of prophecy. For example, Jesus did not regard it as a violation of valid interpretation to assert that John the Baptist could fulfill the prophecy that Elijah would come before the Messiah ( Matt 17:11-13 ; Mark 9:11-13 ), notwithstanding the fact that John was not "literally" Elijah. Like true allegory, predictions of singular events are rare in the Bible and are marked by explicit and precise language (e.g., 1 Kings13:2 , in which a prophet explicitly predicts that Josiah would profane the altar of Bethel ).
The typological interpretation of prophecy asserts that the prophets did not so much make singular predictions as proclaim certain theological themes or patterns and that these themes often have several manifestations or fulfillments in the course of human history. These patterns often have their greatest manifestations in the life of Christ or in the eschaton, but there may be one or more other fulfillments elsewhere in human history, especially in the immediate historical context of the prophet.
This principle of interpretation can best be illustrated from a prophecy of Jesus himself. In Matthew 24-25, Jesus gives the "Olivet Discourse, " in which he speaks both of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple ( 24:2 ) and of the "end of the age" ( 24:3 ). The destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 and the last judgment are juxtaposed under the theological theme of the wrath of God. Some aspects of the prophecy may apply more precisely to a.d. 70 (Bethel e.g., 24:17-20 ) and other aspects to the end of the age ( 24:27-31 ), but the text does not attempt to separate the two events chronologically because they are linked conceptually. The signs that precede the wrath of God, not some specific events, are the real focus of the text.
In addition, the typological interpretation of the Olivet Discourse reveals how a text may be applied legitimately to situations other than one or two specific fulfillments. Throughout the discourse, Jesus warns of false messiahs to come. Because the text describes the signs and upheavals that precede the pouring out of God's wrath and not some single, specific event, this need not be taken simply as a prediction about a final Antichrist. All false messiahs are fulfillments of this prophecy, and all are indicators of a troubled time that is a prelude to divine judgment.
As another example, Joel understands the "day of the Lord" ( 2:31 ) to be not a single event but a theological concept with multiple fulfillments, or perhaps better, multiple manifestations. The locust plague, a terrible judgment of God on his people, was the day of the Lord, but an apocalyptic invasion yet to come (vv. 1-11, referring to a human, not locust, army) was still another manifestation of the day of the Lord. Even so, the day of the Lord was also salvation for his people, as seen in the restoration of the land (vv. 21-27), the pouring out of the Spirit (vv. 28-32), and the judgment on the nations ( 3:1-21 ). Each of these events is a separate manifestation of the day of the Lord and each can be called a "fulfillment." Peter, therefore, can cite the entirety of Joel 2:28-32 as fulfilled on Pentecost Sunday since the pouring out of the Spirit, in Peter's understanding as well as in Joel's, was no less than the day of the Lord. In short, the locust plague that took place in Joel's time, the destruction of Jerusalem by invading troops of men, the pouring out of the Spirit, and the final judgment on the nations are all genuine fulfillments of the idea of the day of the Lord.
Typological interpretation clarifies how a prophecy can have its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus and yet have other fulfillments as well. Perhaps the clearest example here is the series of "Servant Songs" in Isaiah ( 42:1-4 ; 49:1-6 ; 50:4-9 ; 52:13-53:12). The major concern has always been that of the identity of the servant. At one point, Isaiah explicitly identifies the servant as Israel ( 49:3 ), but in 50:4-9 he describes the servant in very individualistic terms and in verse 9 the prophet seems to identify himself, speaking in the first person, as the servant. He ascribes various functions to the servant; the role of taking the gospel to the nations figures prominently ( 49:5-6 ). In 52:13-53:12, however, the servant suffers and dies vicariously for the sins of the world but is ultimately vindicated and exalted. There is little need to wonder why the debate about the identity of the servant has raged for so long.
The difficulty of these songs greatly diminishes, however, when one realizes that Isaiah is not speaking of any one individual but of the ideal of the servant of the Lord. That ideal may have its fulfillment corporately (in Israel) or individually (in, for example, the prophets), but the ultimate and complete fulfillment is in Christ himself. Thus, not everyone who might be legitimately called a "servant of the Lord" fulfills every aspect of these prophecies; only the Messiah can atone for the sins of the world. Even so, anyone who with patience endures hardship and persecution for God's sake and carries on with the task of proclaiming God's message to the nations is properly a "servant of the Lord" and fulfills this prophecy. Paul, therefore, can speak of suffering to fill up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions ( Col 1:24 ). This interpretation, moreover, does not diminish but rather enhances the glory of Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of Servant Songs.
Typology also explains how many of the events in Jesus' life and ministry are fulfillments of Old Testament patterns. Like the nation of Israel, Jesus came out of Egypt ( Matt 2:15 ), spent forty days in the wilderness (comparable to the forty years of Israel's wandering), and gave his law on a mountain. Jesus individually fulfills the highest ideals of the role of Israel as God's servant and is in a sense the nation of Israel incarnate.
Typology also functions in prophecies about evil. Babylon, for example, is the type of cultural and institutional opposition to God's people. It is a kind of antikingdom of God and figures prominently in Revelation 17-18. It is unnecessary and in fact misleading, however, to ask if Babylon in this text is either "literal" Babylon or Rome, because it is both of those cities but more than either. Any city or civilization, with its institutions, culture, wealth, oppression, and power structure, is a rival to the city of God. These chapters in Revelation therefore speak directly to any believer in any age or culture and are bound neither to the ancient past nor to the prophetic future.
The value of typology is twofold. First, it provides an intelligible hermeneutic for dealing with biblical prophecy. The problems of interpreting prophecies, especially those concerning Christ, have often left the interpreter with the unhappy choice of either ignoring the historical and literary context of a passage in order to point the text toward Christ or of focusing exclusively on the historical situation of the prophet with the implication being that the passage in fact has nothing to say about Christ. Faced with this dilemma, some interpreters take Isaiah 7:14 exclusively as a prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ and employ fairly desperate exegesis to explain why Isaiah would make such a prediction in the context of the Syro-Ephraimite war. Others relate Isaiah 7:14 exclusively to its historical context and in effect say that Matthew was wrong to take it as a prophecy of Christ's birth ( Matt 1:23 ). In typological exegesis, however, the dilemma is not only avoided but is meaningless.
Second, typology allows for very direct and practical application of prophetic texts to the situations in which God's people find themselves in the real world. Christians need not vex themselves over the identity of the Antichrist and should not suppose that only some future generation will face the trials and persecutions of Antichrist. Martyrs who suffered under Nero or Stalin, for example, faced Antichrist just as surely as anyone ever did or ever will.
Duane A. Garrett
Bibliography. F. F. Bruce, New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes; D. A. Garrett, An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of John Chrysostom's Commentary on Isaiah 1-8 with an English Translation; L. Goppelt, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New; G. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Type, Typology'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".