Sunday, June 16, 2013

Typology (the theological kind)

Patheos blogger Joel Willitts nails what makes me so uneasy about typology:
But just recently I’ve come to realize what it is that makes me uncomfortable with much biblical theology today. I noticed it most clearly in two books on biblical theology published in the last year: Gentry & Wellum’s Kingdom through Covenant, and Goldsworthy’s Christ-Centered Biblical Theology.
Here’s my problem. These recent scholars, and a good deal many others, use typology as the preferred method for discovering unity. Typology is an interpretive move where the reader sees in an OT person or event a prefigurement (type) of something in the NT (anti-type), e.g. Moses and Jesus. While this is not necessarily problematic, the underlying assumption that is at work very commonly depreciates (at best!!) the earlier person/event in light of the later. As Matthew Boulton put it, “the occurrence of the latter seems to render the former either obsolete, no longer necessary or, at best, still venerable but nevertheless subordinate” (SJT 66[1]: 20).
Here’s my syllogism:
  • Most typological interpretation is supersessionistic.
  • Most biblical theology uses typology.
  • Most biblical theology is supersessionistic.
Here’s my problem. I don’t think the apostles were supersessionists. I don’t think this is how they read the OT. And it doesn’t appear to be the way they thought about its prefigurements. Consider John 1:16-17:
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ (CEB).
In this text the Evangelist is making a typological comparison between the grace given by God through Moses and that given through Jesus. In Jewish interpretation this is a classic qal va-homer (‘ the argument from the minor to the major ‘). For the logic to work, it would make no sense to downplay or to depreciate the former in view of the latter. Such a move would only depreciate the grace now given. In other words, the higher view one has of the grace given through Moses, the greater view one will have of the grace now in and through Jesus. Clearly in the comparison the latter (grace through Jesus) is related and dependent on the grace of the former (grace through Moses). One can only appreciate greatness of the latter in view of the former.
Can biblical theology be done without a supersessionistic application of typology?
The Biblical survey courses I took through my church last year made me acutely aware of this pitfall of typology. We would talk about how such-and-such old testament figure or story "points to Jesus" or "foreshadows" the gospel to the point where the Old Testament could seem like nothing but a literary device to support the New. The significance of these things and their ability to stand alone as theological statements are forgotten as they are considered to be in the Bible primarily to make Jesus look better, to "foreshadow Him", "contrast with Him", "heighten the tension", etc. When we start interpreting and explaining the Old Testament in terms of types like this, we see less of a God who actively, personally involves Himself in the history of Israel and more a God who manipulates lives and kingdoms according to His whims like characters and plotlines in His next bestselling novel. This is an even less appealing picture of God than the bloodthirsty tyrant He is often caricatured as because it is not only amoral and borderline malicious, it is impersonal and detached.

Typology is ultimately a kind of analogical thinking, whereby we set up an analogy between an Old Testament figure and Jesus and then see the figure's significance in terms of this analogy, i.e. how we see Christ in the story. This is where the difference between the Bible being primarily about Jesus and it being entirely about Jesus comes into play. If we view the Old Testament typologically (as a series of reflections or foreshades of Christ), then it ultimately becomes highly redundant and repetitious, because the New Testament is much more clearly about Him anyway. Practically, this can play out in two ways. Because the Old Testament does, in fact, have unique knowledge to offer besides just saying things about Christ, typology tends to either downplay and marginalize these parts of the stories relative to the Christological parts, or they may be twisted to fit the typological rubric.

A big example is Adam, especially because Paul makes the typological relation explicit in Romans 5:14. Jesus is therefore commonly described as the "second Adam", but more accurate would be to say that Adam is considered the "proto-Christ", the reason Jesus had to come and die to atone for sins. I don't deny that Paul saw Genesis 1-3 in this light, but the danger comes when we make this our entire lens for seeing Adam. Not only does this make a historical Adam much harder to let go of, it makes it almost impossible to read Genesis 1-3 in any other way (e.g. as a parallel to the history of the Israelites, or a story about wisdom, or in general anything like how its original audience would have read it).

A strictly typological approach to Genesis 1-3 also leads to hermeneutical violence like detaching the curses in Genesis 3:14-19 from their immediate context to recontextualize them in terms of the "gospel narrative". So Genesis 3:15, the "protoevangelium", is seen as an actual predictive promise of the incarnation and gospel delivered to comfort Adam and Eve on their expulsion from the garden (rather than one that Jesus retrospectively fulfilled), and the curses on the man and woman are interpreted to mean the inauguration of original sin and the "Fallen World", even though no mention is made of the couple as the cause of anything bad anywhere in the OT after this and Adam's curse has nothing to do with receiving a sinful nature.

I hope I wasn't too hard on typology in general with that example. I am not saying that any exercise of theologically or thematically relating Old Testament figures with Jesus is bad. In keeping with Willitts' quote, what concerns me is when the Old Testament figure is devalued, rendered inferior, or diminished in significance by this comparison. Paul's typological comparison of Jesus with Adam served to help Jewish readers familiar with Genesis to appreciate Jesus more by His "fulfilling" the mistakes of Adam as well as to see Adam in a new way (the lack of mentions in the Old Testament indicates that the Jews didn't see Adam anything like we do now). The problem arises when we get so caught up in analogy-making that we see this new way as the only way to view Adam, glossing over the parts of the Bible that don't match this view or viewing them as insignificant compared to the typology-friendly parts. The Bible does not simply present one, "divine" perspective on the subjects on which it touches, but a tapestry of diverse (nonetheless inspired) human ones. Typology, done right, recognizes and celebrates this multivocality.

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