Protestant Apologetics and Theology Page
Introduction of Biblical Typology
By Eric Landstrom
For the purposes of this class, typology (or typological symbolism) is a Christian form of biblical interpretation that proceeds on the assumption that God has placed anticipations of Christ in the laws, events, and people of the Old Testament.
Typology, as a discipline, has been employed by biblical interpreters from the foundation of the New Testament. Nevertheless, as our textbooks have warned, there is a danger of infringing one's presumptions upon the biblical text to the point were typology becomes allegory. Although allegory does have a biblical president; such as in Paul's reference to Hagar and Sarah representing the two covenants, one of bondage and one of freedom (Gal. 4:21-25 cf. Gen. 16-17); generally there is little allegory within Scripture. The outcome of past expositor's employing allegory as an extension of typology has been the distortion or perversion of the biblical message. This has led many within the evangelical community to reject the study of typology altogether because of the often extravagant speculations of earlier typologists have left a bad taste for typology in their minds, because they have been led to believe that the study of types has been compromised. As a further complication, the spirit of natural liberalism has silently assaulted the thinking of some within the Christian community. This has led to a tendency to dismiss the supernatural elements of the Scriptures and typology along with them because, typology as a discipline, relates to prophecy. The Bible itself, however, makes it quite clear that types and anti-types are a vital component of developing themes within the Lord's plan of progressive revelation.
Though never involved or mentioned in the New Testament, Philo (20 B.C. - 50 A.D.), a heretical Jew, has played an important part in historical theology because of his founding of the Alexandrian School of thought. Despite the Lord's command, "Learn not the way of the heathen" (Jer. 10:2), Philo was tempted by heathen intellectualism and sought the merger of Greek philosophy with Old Testament Judaism. Although controversial for that reason alone, Philo's methods lead to an over emphasis of the allegorical interpretive method. Alfred Edersheim elaborated on the errors of Philo's allegoric method:
Everything became symbolic in his hands, if it suited his purpose: numbers, beasts, birds, fowls, creeping things, plants, stones, elements, substances, conditions, even sex. And so a term or an expression might even have several and contradictory meanings, from which the interpreter was at liberty to choose.
This lead to the neoplatonist idea that Scripture contained two truths: a temporal truth and a spiritual truth, with the latter being viewed as "more real." Though this idea still perpetuates even today, as a rule, evangelical Christians have come to soundly reject this premise.
Within the discipline of typology the use of proof-texting, or the use of Scripture to solidly ground and verify one's thesis, has tended to have fallen to the way-side in favor of the "big idea" approach which seeks to compare and contrast the thought or intent of the biblical writers. However, without some grounding in the proof text approach, the search for types and anti-types within Scripture can overreach the boundaries of Scripture as Walter Wilson's 1999 book, A Dictionary of Biblical Types, so sadly illustrates, by again introducing allegory where none exists within Scripture.
Though it is often necessary to compare the thought or big idea of a biblical passage with its counterpart to fully develop or understand a type's meaning and significance, this should not be done without the help of direct references or textual clues. As an extended illustration of grounding typology within the confines of the proof-text approach, we can determine that Isaac is a type of Jesus Christ by following the textual clues given in the text of Scripture. These clues are then elaborated and developed by comparing the big idea alluded to by the text.
References of the textual clues found in Scripture of the type/anti-type relationship that Isaac holds with Jesus Christ:
Only begotten Son Genesis 22:2 John 3:16
Offered on a mountain, hill Genesis 22:2 Matt. 21:10
Took donkey to place of sacrifice Genesis 22:3 Matt. 21:2-11
Two men went with him. Genesis 22:3 Mark 15:27; Luke 23:33
Three day journey. Jesus: three days in the grave Genesis 22:4 Luke 24:13-21
Son carried wood on his back up hill Genesis 22:6 John 19:17
God will provide for Himself the lamb Genesis 22:8 John 1:29
Son was offered on the wood Genesis 22:9 Luke 23:33
Ram in thicket of thorns Genesis 22:13 John 19:2
The seed will be multiplied Genesis 22:17 John 1:12; Isaiah 53:10
Abraham went down, Son sat down Genesis 22:19 Luke 23:46; Heb. 1:3
Servant gets bride for son Genesis 24:1-4 Eph. 5:22-32;
Rev. 21:2, 9; 22:17
The bride was a beautiful virgin Genesis 24:16 2 Cor. 11:2
Servant offered ten gifts to bride* Genesis 24:10 Rom. 6:23; 12; 1 Cor. 12
*6 gifts given to man that anybody can do.
9 charismatic gifts
1 gift of eternal life
In the birth of Isaac we have a foreshadowing of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. But God did not spring the virgin birth on mankind. He prepared us first with several miraculous births before this, including the birth of John the Baptist, the birth of Samson, and the birth of Isaac.
Although the births of Samson and John the Baptist ultimately integrate within the redemptive plan to reveal the birth of Christ, there is a remarkable similarity between the births of Isaac and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1) Both the birth of Isaac and the birth of Jesus Christ had both been promised. God had called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees twenty-five years earlier and there God told Abraham that He was going to give Sarah and Abraham a son (paraphrase Gen. 17:16). With the birth of Isaac, God fulfilled His promise. As a continued foreshadow of the birth of Christ, God through His prophet said to the nation of Israel, "A virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son" (Isaiah 7:14). When the day came that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it was the fulfillment of prophecy. Both births had been announced beforehand.
(2) With both the birth of Isaac and Jesus, there was a long interval between the promise and the fulfillment.
(3) The announcement of the births to Sarah and Mary both seemed incredible and impossible. Recall that the servants of the Lord visited Abraham as they were on their way to Sodom, and they announced the birth of Isaac, but it just seemed impossible. Sarah laughed and said, "This thing cannot be. It is beyond belief." And it was it not Mary who first raised a question about the virgin birth? When the angel made the announcement, she asked, "How can this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34).
(4) Although John the Baptist was also named before his birth, Isaac and Jesus were also named before their births. Abraham and Sarah were told that they were going to have a son and that they were to name him Isaac. And with the Lord Jesus, we find that He was named beforehand. The angel said to Joseph, thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). With the naming of Jesus, we also are given a foreshadow of His life's purpose which makes the allusion back to the life of Isaac (cf. Gen. 22:8).
(5) Both Isaac and Jesus' births occurred at God's appointed time and not before. Genesis 21:2 states that at the set time which God had spoken to them of, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Regarding the birth of Jesus, we note that Paul says, "but when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law" (Gal. 4:4).
(6) Both Isaac and Jesus' births were miraculous. For a woman, any woman, to conceive a child at the age of 89 and then to give birth at the age of ninety is a miracle. Likewise, the virgin birth Isaiah foretold of was no less a miracle.
(7) Both sons were a joy of their fathers. The account given in Genesis 21:3 states that "Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac," meaning laughter. The parallel reference to Jesus, we read of the Father who spoke out of heaven who said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17). Both sons were a joy in comparison to the sorrow felt by Abraham and the Lord with Ishmael and Israel.
(8) Both Isaac and Jesus were obedient to their fathers even unto death. In Genesis 22 we see that Isaac is offered up as a blood sacrifice. Though the Lord stayed Abraham's hand, at the time Abraham believed the Lord would raise Isaac up again (cf. Heb. 11:19) which was itself a foreshadow of the resurrection of Jesus Christ who was also obedient to the Father unto death (Phil. 2:8).
(9) Ultimately, the miraculous birth of Isaac is a picture of the resurrection of Christ. Paul applies a theological commentary of the Lord's foretelling of the birth of Isaac as an illustration of faith in Romans 4:16-22; saying of Abraham, "being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body dead neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb." Out of apparent barrenness comes life picturing the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The comparisons between the lives of Isaac and Jesus Christ through the study of typology give us clues and allusions of how the providential hand of the Lord was far more active in bringing about His redemptive plan than a simple survey of Old Testament prophecy would reveal. The study of typology also helps reveal how in different ways, ways which were entirely unexpected by the Jews, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment or anti-type of such prophecy. Nevertheless, a typology that doesn't follow the precepts of the biblical text, or the themes that are progressively developed throughout the Bible are given to speculation, and ultimately, allegory.
Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971, p. 43.
Table from Matt Slick, Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, Dictionary of Theology, typology: http://www.carm.org/dictionary/dic_t.htm#_1_192
I am indebted to J. Vernon McGee's illustrations of Isaac and Jesus from Thu the Bible, vol. 1, 1981, Nashville, MO: Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 88.