The practice in the New Testament and the early church whereby a person or a series of events occurring in the Old Testament is interpreted as a type or foreshadowing of some person (almost invariably Christ) or feature in the Christian dispensation. For example, in 1 Peter 3.19–21 the story of Noah's ark is taken as a type of baptism, and in Hebrews 11.17–19 Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (See Aqedah) is understood as a type of Christ's resurrection. These two examples also show that the word “type” need not be used for a typological comparison to be made.

The very possibility of such typology depends on the Christian assumption that the Bible recounts the course of salvation history. By this is meant the Bible as a record of the long development by which God, with a redemptive purpose always in mind, called Israel into being out of Egypt, led her through the wilderness, made a covenant with her, brought her into Canaan, guided and admonished her through her troubled history (including the traumatic experience of the Babylonian exile), and consummated his relationship by sending his Son in Jesus Christ—thereby effecting an eternal salvation by establishing a people of God whose membership is open to all. What justifies understanding the Bible typologically (if it can be justified) is the conviction that God is always the same. If he is fully known in Jesus Christ, then when he revealed himself under the old dispensation, he must in some sense have been known as the God of Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, justifiable to seek in his revelation of himself under the old dispensation some similarity with his revelation under the new. In fact, a sort of typology can be found in the Hebrew Bible itself: see, for example, Isaiah 43.1–19; 51.9–11, where God's action of old in creation and redemption from Egypt are treated as types of the new deliverance from exile about to occur (See Exodus, The).

Clear examples of typology occur in 1 Corinthians 10.1–11, where the events of the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the manna, and the water issuing miraculously from the rock are taken as types of baptism and of the bread and wine in the Eucharist. What is more, the presence of the preexistent Christ with Israel in the wilderness is implied.

If used excessively or indiscriminately, typology can pass over into allegory. Allegory means using any person, event, or object in the Old Testament arbitrarily to signify a corresponding event or thing in the New Testament. The difference lies in the authenticity of the analogy. Allegory does sometimes appear in the New Testament; in Galatians 4.21–30, for example, Paul launches into an elaborate comparison of Ishmael and Isaac, on the one hand, with Judaism and Christianity, on the other. But he brings in so many terms of comparison that the meaning merges into an unconvincing allegory. Again, in 1 Corinthians 9.9–10 Paul argues that apostles have a right to be supported because, according to the Law, an ox is allowed to eat the grain as it treads it out. The comparison fails to carry much conviction, however, because oxen are not apostles.

Some modern Roman Catholic scholars have used the medieval concept of sensus plenior to justify a modern use of typology. This was the idea that the words of inspired writers in the Old Testament might bear a deeper or fuller sense than they were aware of, and that this deeper sense can be perceived in the New Testament. This can be a helpful and illuminating way of reading the Bible as long as it is kept within reasonable bounds. For example, in Psalm 119.105 the psalmist exclaims, “Your word is a lamp to my feet.” A Christian, who knows of the Word made flesh, may reasonably and profitably apply this to Christ, as long as one does not claim that the psalmist knew about Christ in writing the words.

See also Interpretation, History of, article on Early Christian Interpretation


Anthony Tyrrell Hanson