The Old Testament in the New: What Is True Typology?

Moses and the Brazen Serpent by Sebastien Bourbon, Public Domain

Moses and the Brazen Serpent by Sebastien Bourbon (Public Domain)

One of the most important things in the life of a Christian is his knowledge of the teachings of the Bible.  The Bible contains, if one might use only very basic classifications, the revelation of the nature of God, the history of his dealings with men, the revelation of Jesus as Savior and Messiah, the history of the primitive Church and its formation of doctrines, and God’s will and plan concerning the future.  Most everyone well recognizes that the Bible is a highly complex book, and one not always readily understood.

From this mass of ancient writings, the Christian hopes to learn, in short, God’s will for his own life, in the present.  With this in view, one can see the great consequence involved in the interpretation of the Bible.  By whatever means Bible doctrine is derived, it bears upon Christian scholars and teachers to make sure its substance is correct.

Having mentioned that there are various means of deriving Bible doctrine, one must hastily point out that the first and best rendering of Scripture, on the whole, is the literal:  what is said is exactly what is meant.  For example, when God warns Noah of a great flood coming, Noah took it to mean that he had better build a boat, or he would get his feet wet!  There was no further “interpretation” needed!  But there are times when the “literal sense” is not appropriate:  one must make allowances for figurative language, which is used extensively throughout Scripture.  Otherwise, one might get the impression that the earth is flat, because it has four corners (Isaiah 11:12, Revelation 7:1); or that there was once a woman named Wisdom, who would go out into the streets to cry (Proverbs 1:20).  Of course, most people will recognize that these examples merely demonstrate a literary mode of expression.  This “figurative sense” is a perfectly legitimate way to interpret Scripture, as long as the author’s meaning is clear.

Finally, there is a “spiritual sense” to Scripture.  The idea is that there is a “second meaning” to some (if not all) Scripture, which was not fully evident to its original audience, or even the author.  These hidden interpretations were placed by God within the framework of Scripture with the express purpose of their discovery ad hoc.  Later interpreters, given special discernment, have been able to uncover and apply these hidden meanings.  Various forms of the “spiritual sense” are typology, symbolism, allegory and, to some extent, predictive prophecy.  This study is concerned with the nature of typology—nevertheless, the definition of these other forms, as well as their differentiation from typology, will be necessary.

The concern with the spiritual sense of Scripture is predicated upon its validity.  For the most part, the “second meaning” is based upon the word of a single interpreter.  But to what extent can one man’s discernment be trusted?  After all, doctrine is often built upon these spiritual interpretations.  One wrong interpretation, taken to an extreme, could cause a great heresy to arise.  Indeed, it has often happened.  Strict controls are needed, as well as a greater understanding of the method, its uses, and its dangers.

Therefore has this study been undertaken, in order to delineate Biblical typology, set it apart from other methods of interpretation, and see if and how it can be used to uncover scriptural truth.

Typology: Defined

The first step is to define the term.  Typology is, literally, the study of “types.”  “Type,” as used here, comes from the Greek tupos, variously defined as “visible impression or mark” (John 20:25), “copy or image,” “image or statue” (Acts 7:43), “pattern” (Romans 6:17), “archetype, pattern, model, design” (Acts 7:44, Hebrews 8:5), “moral example or pattern” (I Timothy 4:12, I Thessalonians 1:7), and “God-given type, symbol, or foreshadowing” (Romans 5:14).1  Obviously, “type” in New Testament usage is a general term, rather than the technical term which is applied here (or elsewhere in theology).  For this reason, one should not always assume that the word “type” in the New Testament carries the narrow, technical sense as used in theology.

In the theological context, a type is a person, thing, or event which corresponds to a later person, saying, or event.  The later occurrence is called the “antitype.”  The nature of this correspondence between type and antitype is one of relationship.2  It is this relationship aspect which separates typology from other forms of spiritual interpretation, as will be demonstrated.  The relationship between type and antitype is basically one of analogy—i.e., a similar (analogous) situation—the only essential difference being that the term “type” assumes that the linkage between the two occurrences was ordained and engineered by God.  This separates typology from, say, a sermon analogy, which might well be inspired but nevertheless is not accorded the authority of Scripture.  Therefore, typology is the study of these corresponding relationships found in Scripture which are judged to be “true types”:  divinely inspired as opposed to simple analogy.

Beginning with the Primitive Church, Christian evangelists and apologists have been concerned with demonstrating the reality of Jesus Christ as the Messiah by showing him as both predicted and pre-figured by the Old Testament.  The New Testament writers often connected the two Testaments in just such a way—continuity is of prime importance.  Although the most concrete manner of such linkage is in noting the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in Christ, it was also common to make use of typology.

Some examples are in order here:  In John 3:14-15, Jesus himself used the typological method.  He refers back to Numbers 21:8-9, saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, in the same manner must the Son of Man be lifted up, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.”  Notice that Jesus does not identify himself directly with the bronze serpent; nor does he give significance to the material, bronze, nor to any other incidental details of the story.  Rather, he draws a comparison of relationship:  just as the serpent was lifted on a pole, so would be the Messiah—for the purpose that those who “believed” would be delivered.  In the case of the Numbers passage, “believe” meant simply looking upon the serpent; in the case of Christ, “believe” meant trusting in his vicarious sacrifice.  It is the relationship, not the details, which matter.3

Then, in I Corinthians 5:7-8, the Apostle Paul urges,

Purge out the old leaven, that you might be a new lump, just as you are unleavened; for Christ our Passover [lamb] was sacrificed.  Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with wickedness and maliciousness, but with unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Here Paul makes not one, but two typical identifications.  One is the identification of leaven with wickedness.  This is a correspondence of relationship:  just as the leaven must be purged out of Israel at Passover, so must wickedness be purged from the Christian.  Secondly, Paul identifies Jesus with the Passover lamb:  just as a spotless lamb was sacrificed for Israel, so is Jesus Christ offered up for our sakes (cf. Exodus 12:3-12).  Again, Paul did not try to identify all the details of the type with the New Testament counterpart.  For instance, he did not attempt to attach a New Testament significance to the doorposts upon which the lamb’s blood was smeared.4

Of course, Biblical typology is not limited to the Old Testament/New Testament connection.  In fact, there are many instances in which both type and antitype occur within the corpus of the Old Testament.  Robert C. Dentan describes one such occurrence found in Isaiah:

The great, creative event in Israel’s history had been God’s deliverance of his people out of Egypt . . . .  [Isaiah] was sure that the same guy was still working in history and that he would inevitably deliver his people again.  A new and greater Exodus was about to take place, and the prophet uses imagery drawn from the old story to describe (typologically) this new event:  “thus saith Yahweh, who maketh a path in the sea and a path in the mighty waters . . . behold I will do a new thing . . . I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers (paths?) in the desert (Isaiah 43:16-19).5

Similar uses of typology in the Old Testament can be found in Isaiah 9:1, 11:6-9, 51:9-11, 52:11-12, 55:3-4; Jeremiah 16:14-15, 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23-24; Hosea 2:16-17; Amos 9:11.6

As an aid to understanding typology, A. B. Mickelson has formulated a list of three basic characteristics common to true typological relationships:

(1) Some notable point of resemblance or analogy must exist between the type and antitype . . . (2) Even though a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament is typical, it does not mean that the contemporaries of the particular person, event, or thing recognized it as typical . . . (3) The point of correspondence is important for later generations because they can see that God’s earlier action became significant in his later action.7

Typology: Contrasted

The term “typology” has often been used to describe the spiritual sense of Scripture, in general, as well as being confused with other specific forms of “second meaning.”  As a further aid to the understanding of typology, one should also be aware of what typology is not:

Typology Is Not Predictive Prophecy

In a sense, true typology is predictive, in that the typical situation “foreshadows” the anti-typical situation.  But the relationship between the two is one of correspondence rather than fulfillment.

A prediction is essentially an extension of the literal sense.  Although the prophecy might be expressed in metaphorical or symbolical terms, yet the action that is described will be completed, in all its details.  The correspondence between prophecy and fulfillment is one of particulars, not one of relationship.  For instance, Amos prophesies, “[The Lord] shall send a fire upon Judah, and it shall consume the palaces of Jerusalem” (Amos 2:5).  “Fire” is not literal—it is a metaphor for an instrument of destruction; “palaces of Jerusalem” is a metaphor for the glory and strength of the great city, which shall be destroyed in judgment.  Although the words themselves are figurative, the prophecy itself is literal—the glory of the city shall be destroyed.

Typology Is Not Symbolism

A symbol is something—usually a literal object—which stands for something else.  The object itself, by something inherent in its nature, has some meaning.  A common example is that of a rock, which symbolizes strength and solidarity.  Colors (white for purity), substances (blood for life), actions (“eating” a scroll),8 and ordinances (baptism)9 can also serve as symbols.

It is a common mistake to label things as types which are actually symbols.  In his famous reference Bible, C. I. Scofield succumbs to this error in calling the furnishings of the Tabernacle types.  If they indeed have any second meaning at all, it is as symbols.  According to Scofield, the golden lampstand typifies Christ “our light”; fine linen as righteousness; the color purple suggesting royalty; Silver typifying redemption, because it was used for money, and the list goes on.10  Whether or not these things are true, the fact remains that, in the truest sense, these are symbols rather than types.  If one seeks typology in the Tabernacle, one must look to the ritual associated with it:  for example, the high priest enters alone into the Holy of Holies in order to sacrifice for the sins of all men.  This high priestly office, according to the writer of Hebrews, typifies the intercessory mission of Christ (cf. Hebrews 5:1-3, 7:23-8:5).

Typology Is Not Allegory

The most persistent problem associated with typology is its confusion with allegory.  While typology is usually seen as a viable form of exegesis, allegory is looked upon as suspect.  This is because it has so often been misused.

Allegory is the assignment of new identifications to the details of the story, thus deriving a second meaning.  In practice, the allegorical approach ignores both context and the literal sense, and finds a meaning apart from what the original writer meant.  This is highly dangerous, unless one assumes that the allegorical interpreter can be accorded a level of inspiration and discernment equal to the Biblical writers themselves.  A few examples are quite sufficient to illustrate the danger involved:  As Mickelson relates,

The story of Herod’s slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem is allegorized in a sermon included among the spuria of Chrysostom.  Lampe summarizes it as follows: “the fact that only the children of two years old and under were murdered while those of three presumably escaped is meant to teach us that those who hold the Trinitarian faith will be saved whereas Binitarians and Unitarians will undoubtedly perish.”11

Another sterling example is found in the rabbinic writings, and related by Alfred Edersheim:

The promise, that Japhet shall dwell in the tents of Shem [Gen. 9:27], is paraphrased in the Targum Pseudo-Jon. as meaning, that his descendents should become proselytes, and dwell in the schools of Shem . . . .12

The third example is a true classic:  The Parables of Christ have particularly fallen prey to allegorical exegesis.  This interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) comes from no less than Augustine.  The details of the story are given new identifications in arbitrary fashion, ignoring the literal sense and the original intent—the man who is robbed is Adam, the thieves the devil and his angels, Jericho the moon (“signifying Adam’ s mortality”), the Samaritan Christ, the inn the church, and the innkeeper Paul, to name a few.13

This is not to say that the allegorical method is entirely reprobate—rather, it can be a very useful tool to teach scriptural truth, if indeed the “truth” taught is based in Scripture.  However, due to its arbitrary and subjective nature, the use of this method as an instrument to obtain a spiritual second meaning from Scripture is highly questioned by modern scholars.

But, one might ask, did not the New Testament authors use the allegorical method in order to find Christ in the Old Testament, and a continuity throughout Scripture?  It is this writer’s conception that there is no true (or pure) allegorical interpretation exhibited in the New Testament.14  Let us meet the issue head-on and go right to an examination of Galatians 4:21-31.  This passage is usually referred to as the classic New Testament example of allegorical interpretation.  This is largely because Paul calls it an allegory (v. 24).  However, there is no reason to assume that Paul used “allegory” in the same narrow, technical sense used in theology today.  According to Leonhard Goppelt, “when this interpretation is described as being taken allegorically . . . it simply means that this is an instance in which the interpretation goes beyond the literal meaning.”15

In his opening rhetorical question (v. 21), Paul makes it clear that he is comparing the old covenant, the Law, to the new covenant, Grace.  The comparison between the two offspring of Abraham is one of relationship (i.e., typological):  Just as Ishmael (by Hagar) was the fleshly effort to obtain the Promise, the Law was the fleshly effort to obtain salvation; likewise Isaac (by Sarah), the fulfillment of the Promise by spiritual means, corresponds to grace, which provides salvation spiritually.  Therefore, those who are born of grace (Sarah) are free, like Isaac; while those born of the Law (Hagar) remain as slaves.  Hagar, corresponding relationally to the Law, is equated to Mount Sinai, where the Law was given, and again to Jerusalem, where the Law is kept (v. 25).  In contrast, those who are of grace are of the spiritual Jerusalem (v. 26).  Furthermore, the Law is to be “cast out,” as Hagar was cast out (v. 30).  The entire identification is one of correspondence of relationship.  While traces of allegory might be seen here, it is evident that the passage, on the whole, is interpreted typologically.


Typology has been shown to be, when defined in his narrowest sense, an entirely separate and distinctive form of exegesis.  Its distinction from allegory, in particular, has tended to prove its legitimacy as an exegetical method.  Most importantly, a clear-cut concept of the typological method provides a clue as to how the New Testament exegetes thought (recognizing correspondence of relationship).  This knowledge should be quite useful when examining other Old Testament/New Testament linkages, when one tends to wonder, “How did he make that connection?”  Such an understanding should clear up many mysteries.

One unanswered question remains unanswerable:  what is the ironclad rule for determining a true, God-given type (as opposed to a mere analogy)?  For the most part, one can be safe in his exegesis by limiting typological identifications to those delineated in Scripture itself.  Still, the possibility still remains that (for instance) some of Paul’s identifications were mere sermon analogies.  For that matter, were the Exodus identifications in Isaiah a product of his own thought process, or truly typical relationships?  These are questions which may never be answered until maranatha.

However, there is very strong evidence that at least some of the identifications are genuine.  The idea of Christ as deliverance, prefigured in the bronze serpent, is hard to argue with.  Likewise, the very design of the Tabernacle with its rituals well demonstrates the existence of a “second meaning.”  At any rate, those of us with faith in Christ can hardly doubt that Jesus was, indeed, the underlying theme of all Scripture.


  1. Walter Bauer, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. and adapted William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. an augmented F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 829-30.
  2. See A. B. Mickelson, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), pp. 237-40.
  3. Cf. Mickelson, p. 237.
  4. Cf. Robert C. Dentan, “Typology—Its Use and Abuse,” Anglican Theological Review 34 (1952): 214; Mickelson, p. 238.
  5. Dentan, p. 213.
  6. David L. Baker, “Typology and the Christian Use of the Old Testament,” Scottish Journal of Theology 29 (1976): 139.
  7. Mickelson, p. 246.
  8. Mickelson, p. 276.
  9. Mickelson, p. 277.
  10. C. I. Scofield, ed., The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 101-104.
  11. G. W. H. Lampe, “The Reasonableness of Typology,” (n.p., n.d.), pp. 31-32, cited in Mickelson, pp. 238-39.
  12. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, [1981]), part 2, p. 711.
  13. Gordon D. Fee and David Tracy, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982), p. 124.
  14. Cf. Leonhard Goppelt, Typos: the Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New, trans. Donald H. Madvig (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 139-40; Mickelson, p. 261.
  15. Goppelt, p. 140.

© 2011 Paul A. Hughes.  Originally submitted to Dr. Stanley M. Horton, in partial fulfillment of the requirements in BOT/THE 533, “Old Testament Theology,” The Assemblies Of God Theological Seminary, May 28, 1985.


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