Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 Jul 2013

Warrant for the Analogical Interpretation of Select Scriptures, Part I


Last week a friend of mine, Fred Zaspel, offered a case for the typological interpretation of the Scripture. In offering a four-point rationale for typological interpretation, Zaspel made several observations that call for both applause and reflection. I applauded, for instance, his description of some typologians as “overly imaginative,” “irresponsible,” and “uncontrolled” in their approach. I was also forced to reflect deeply on Zaspel’s careful documentation of the NT writers’ unusual use of the OT and especially the “fulfillment” motif.

But I also found myself wanting more. Specifically, I was left wondering (with these other two bloggers) whether typology is the only viable basis for a valid biblical theology, or whether there was another, less radical explanation for the textual anomalies that Zaspel has identified. Obviously, we must come up with some explanation for the curious habit, common among the NT Scripture writers, of appealing to OT texts for warrant, sometimes even using fulfillment language, when no hint of a forward-looking prophecy can be detected in the OT text cited (Hos 11:1 with Matt 2:15; Jer 31:15 with Matt 2:16–18; Psalm 22:18 with John 19:24; Psalm 96:25 and 109:8 with Acts 1:16–20; Joel 2:28ff with Acts 2:16ff; Psalm 22:1 with Matt 27:46; etc.). And at least part of the answer comes in an appeal to type. As Zaspel rightly observes, the terms for type and antitype actually appear in Scripture, so it does no good to deny the idea entirely. What I resist, though, is the comprehensive practice of typological interpretation. Here’s why:

  • Comprehensive models of typological interpretation tend to see the Bible as hermeneutically unique, i.e., subject to different laws of language than those received and employed by humanity for all other literature forms: If the Bible is truly a book that is to be understood typologically, it is the only book of its kind. And I find it very hard to believe that a God who created mankind with a capacity for propositional language for the precise purpose of establishing communication between God and man (which I firmly believe) would use a different set of rules for his primary book than is used universally outside of that book.
  • Comprehensive forms of typological interpretation tend to create conditions ripe for abuse. If the whole Bible is to be decoded in a nonconventional way, who is the Keeper of the decoding key? If history is our guide, it will be the Pharisee, the True Gnostic, the Clergy, the Cognoscenti, or his modern equivalent. And what are the precise criteria that allow the Keeper to dismiss as “overly imaginative” and “irresponsible” the commentator who sees the center board on the back wall of the Tabernacle as a symbol of eternal security, but to approve as “responsible” and more modestly “imaginative” the typologian of the present day? Apart from very clear answers to these questions, novelty and autonomy becomes the norm in interpretation. And that is scary.
  • Typological interpretation is by its very nature supersessionistic. This may not be a problem to some, but it is something that needs to be at least recognized for what it is. Modern-day scholars who are suddenly writing books, at a frenetic pace, on how biblical unity may be discovered with a systemic network of types are necessarily supersessionist. At best, they depreciate the type (the shadow or prefigurement) when the anti-type arrives; at worst they ignore the type as obsolete, unnecessary, and dispensable. The New Testament supersedes and reinterprets the Old Testament at every turn, and any conflict is resolved by simply dismissing the thorny specifics of the Old Testament with a quick footnote that persistently reads, “All those details were just typological.” This makes exegesis very neat and easy, but at what cost? I would suggest that the cost could ultimately be catastrophic, effectively threatening the very essence and nature of biblical authority.
  • Finally, I believe that comprehensive models of typology can lead the reader to dismiss themes that don’t fit into the typological theory. For instance, most typologians are quite dismissive of any suggestion of any “reversion to type,” such as belief in a Jewish Millennium, a fixation on the earthly land of Palestine in the eschaton, or the future reestablishment of the sacrificial system. These ideas simply do not fit into the typological model, so any texts that seem to suggest as much must necessarily be interpreted typologically. The consensus center of the Gospel has been realized in the flow of Heilsgeschichte, so all other themes must either be terminated or subsumed under it. And any alternative model for the unity of the Scriptures (e.g., dispensationalism) must be vilified.

Of course, in rejecting a typological interpretation of Scripture, the interpreter must come up with some valid explanation for the texts raised above (and a bunch more in Fred Zaspel’s blog essay). My next entry will address this concern.

12 Responses

  1. John T. Jeffery

    Thank you very much for eloquently expressing some of the very issues I have been struggling with on this subject. I have one quick question. You provide a link to “other two bloggers”, but the link only gets me to the following: Joel Willitts, “Biblical Theology without Typology?” (June 6, 2013), on Patheos at [accessed 10 JUL 2013]. Who was the “other” of the “two bloggers” that link was supposed to connect me to? 🙂 Thanks again.

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Sorry about that, John. If you click on the word “two,” it takes you to a post by Joel Willitts; clicking the word “other” will take you to a post by Scot McKnight. McKnight’s post is basically a push of Willitts’s post, but it’s interesting because he starts a new discussion.


  3. Jared Compton

    Thanks for this, Mark. I do wonder, however, whether you’ve given us the posts in the wrong order. Granted, this is coming from one of your NT colleagues, but shouldn’t exegesis of the NT use of the OT precede any list of hermeneutical rules or cautions? E.g., what if the NT authors thought God’s revelation was slightly different than anything the world had ever seen. (Where else, in any case, do we have a piece of literature in world history that can claim God as a co-author? Where else do we have anything like the NT concept of mystery; cf. esp. Rom 16.25-27?) Or, what if the way the NT authors use the OT creates conditions ripe for abuse, fanciful interpr., etc.? I suppose I’m hesitant to read the NT with firm notions already in place of what the author can and cannot be doing with the OT. We all do this at some point, of course, but I’d be much more comfortable letting God’s hermeneuticians have the first word.

    (For those in the area, Mark and I will be offering a Th.M. seminar this Fall in biblical theology. If you’re free on Tues. early afternoon, consider joining us.)

  4. Larry

    To Jared’s question/comment about exegesis preceding hermeneutical rules, I wonder what exactly you mean by that and how that would fit into or fit with what I say here.

    A number of people make the point that genres have rules built into them, i.e., Wittgenstein’s language games (that Kuruvilla leans on in his Text to Praxis). For instance, Kuruvilla says it is “misleading to speak of texts as autonomous entities, self-existent and self-sufficient. Rather they are discourses that have meaning only with respect to a particular system of genre conventions utilized by the authors and recognized by the reader” (Kuruvilla 2009, 36).

    So as I understand him (which may be incorrect) he is saying that genre means that there are hermeneutical rules that must be understood prior to the possibility of exegesis.

    He says, “Even at the very basic unit of textual structure, a single sentence can have different meanings depending on the genre it adopts. ‘Love all!’ in a compendium of moral maxims means something quite different than when it is located in the reportage of a tennis match” (Kuruvilla 2009, 36).

    So how you can exegete the sentence “Love all!” (or any other sentence) without knowledge of the rules of genre that dictate how it is being used. (I am getting ready to write some on this so help me out here.)

    (BTW, the reply to button is not showing up for me.)

  5. Jared Compton

    Larry: What the NT does with the OT should precede what we determine the OT can and cannot mean and, therefore, should precede what we say one can and cannot do with the OT. To return to an old discussion: Matthew’s fulfillment language in 2.15 should precedes any final decision about what Hosea 11.1 means. Go ahead, write up your rules, just use a pencil, at least until you’ve let the apostles have their say.

  6. BE


    How can we determine what the NT means? If we can’t understand what the OT can or cannot mean without first finding out how the NT interprets it, it seems we must begin with an assumption that we can know what the NT can or cannot mean. How? Are the means of determining the meaning of the NT different from the means of determining the meaning of the OT?

    If understanding Matt 2:15 must precede understanding Hos 11:1, what must precede understanding Matt 2:15?

    One other consideration: I think I mostly agree with what you are saying, but wouldn’t the reverse be true as well. Shouldn’t a final decision on what Matt 2:15 means be on hold until we consider what Hos 11:1 means?


  7. Jared Compton

    Ben, the NT helps determine the meaning of the OT in a way that the OT does not help determine the meaning of the NT. The NT claims, after all, that certain features of the OT could not be seen, understood, etc. without the revelation comprised in the NT. No where is the reverse stated. That’s partially what I thought we all meant by progressive revelation. I suppose it’s like the way the end of a mystery novel sheds quite a bit of light on earlier chapters in a different way than those earlier chapters prepare us for the end. Take the former away and there’d be no surprise, no mystery. Take the latter away and the story would be incoherent and unsatisfying. (That’s all I think I’ve got for this one today.)

  8. Mark Snoeberger

    Jared, thanks for the pushback. You’ve packed a lot into your comment, so let me try to organize my reply:

    (1) I concede that the Bible is unique in some respects (of course), but not in every respect. Specifically, I have trouble with the idea that the Bible is hermeneutically unique. For the received laws of language to be implemented differently in the Bible than they are in all other literature suggests that the meaning of the Bible really cannot be known by normal reading. And, in fact, that no one actually did know the meaning of the Bible’s parts until they had the whole.

    (2) But why stop here? IOW, what gives us the warrant to announce that the divine use of types is limited to the OT? Perhaps God used them in the NT, too. If the very specific promises made of Israel, her land, her sacrificial system, her covenant (e.g., Joel 2, Jer 33, but really throughout the whole prophetic corpus) can be resignified with a wave of the typological wand, by what warrant can we be assured that the very specific promises made to us in the NT might not also be resignified? The typical answer (no pun intended) is that we’ve reached the climax of Heilsgeschichte and we no longer need types. But this is an arbitrary answer, and one I don’t concede.

    (3) While the NT Scriptures clearly indicate that God put some OT events, persons, and entities in place to function as benchmarks for future comparison/contrast (e.g., Adam, the Exodus, the Law), I would limit their incidence to those that are explicitly identified as such by the NT writers. Without this tight standard in place, I can think of no viable perimeter to the discovery of types, and we end up with the “overly imaginative” and “irresponsible” hermeneutics that Zaspel rightly condemns. My standard may well be too restrictive, but to what other standard can we appeal, i.e., what is the standard by which the typologian can effectively avoid the “overly imaginative” and “irresponsible” discovery of types?

    (4) Moving to the question of the “NT hermeneuticians,” then, I’d like to suggest that I have two basic options: (a) I can conclude, rather provincially, that since the NT writers identified a handful of types, every believer now has all the warrant he needs for a typological interpretation of the whole OT or (b) I can conclude that the NT writers, uniquely and under divine inspiration, explicitly singled out a handful of types that assist them in illustrating and connecting the Bible’s storyline, but otherwise treated the Bible in all of its manifest normalcy, and we should do the same today. I’ve opted for (b).

    (5) What I’d like to suggest is that the many modern evangelical typologians have long since left biblical theology behind. They’ve already identified the center of their system (the antitypical Christ who is the effective fulfillment of all the Scripture’s promises, effectively canceling out all their plain specificity) and have commenced building a system of theology around that center. Specifically, they’ve long ago concluded that the “NT hermeneuticians” make extremely broad use of types and have shut off all other options. What I’m suggesting in this post (and the next) is that there are some very important alternatives to typological interpretation that we need to revisit.

    (6) Finally, as to NT mysteries, I see these as data unknown in the OT, but now made known by the NT writers. I don’t see any necessary relationship of mystery and type. That Romans 16 speaks of mysteries made known “through” the prophetic Scriptures I would see as references to the New Testament Scriptures (so Kasemann, Godet). There are other viable options too, but I’ll leave it with my interpretive preference.


  9. BE


    Thanks for the response. I don’t want to draw this out and realize you don’t have time for an extended back and forth. So, I’ll quibble a bit with your assertion, then utilize the helpful analogy of a novel you provided.

    First, my quibble: The NT does indicate it offers further light on the OT, and of course the OT would not claim to offer insight into later revelation (how could it?). But I think the NT authors/speakers often assume an understanding of the OT is necessary to get what they are saying as well (e.g., Lk 24:24; Jn 5:39; Acts 17:11; 1 Cor 15:3-4; James 4:5). Without the OT, we can’t understand the NT as well as we can with it (imagine studying Hebrews without the OT!). It’s not as much of a one-way street as you are indicating.

    Which leads in nicely to your analogy. I find the idea of a novel very helpful. When I know the end of the story, I can see the significance of earlier details or events in the story that I missed the first time. But without those earlier events, the conclusion would not mean as much to me either. It would not simply be that there is no surprise or mystery, but that I can’t really understand the full significance of the ending details without the earlier ones. That’s why I argue that Hos 11:1 is necessary to understand Matt 2:15, not simply the reverse.


  10. I’m taking a hermeneutics class right now (for fun!), so this conversation has been very helpful for me. Thanks to all who have participated.

    Quick question: Mark, would you include Isaiah 7:14 in this discussion?

  11. Mark Snoeberger

    Scott, the Isaiah 7:14 passage is a particularly thorny one. There are good studies that suggest that the passage is a self-conscious Messianic prediction (for instance, see this one: However, I would not write off as heretical someone who takes an analogical reading.