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.