Theology in 3D

To Type or Not To Type

Layton Talbert | March 4, 2019
New Testament, Old Testament, Theology

Greg and Ken have written two excellent and more or less opposing posts on whether Joseph is a type of Christ. Ken ended his post by suggesting that I follow up the discussion on Joseph as a type by addressing this question: Is typology, however defined, an exercise in biblical theology or systematic theology? Some of both? And depending on the answer, to what degree should we be dogmatic about types?


Personally I’m somewhat agnostic on the typological dimension of Joseph. Or rather, I’m ambivalent. Parallels between the character and life-experience of Joseph and Jesus seem plentiful and undeniable (even if you don’t agree with all 101 similarities that A. W. Pink includes in his commentary on Genesis). To that degree that we are dealing with multiple textual data, we are dealing with an issue of biblical theology.

But what we do with those parallels — how formally or informally we treat them, and how much theological authority we invest in them — ultimately comes down to the issue of definition: what is a “type” and what is not a “type.” As Ken suggested, different texts seem to use typological language somewhat differently — sometimes with fairly rigid parameters, sometimes more loosely. There is no definitive, single, scriptural definition of what a type is or how typology is “supposed” to operate . . . except for the definitions offered by theologians. And anytime you have different theologians defending different definitions based on different biblical data, you have clearly moved into the field of systematic theology.

So to what degree should we be dogmatic about types? Again, that forces us back to the issue of definition. As in any other systematic theological issue, the degree of dogmatism is determined by the level of devotion to one’s systematic theological deductions and definitions. If by “type” you mean a theologically-laden phenomenon expressly intended by the Holy Spirit, then there’s plenty of room for dogmatism for what, and only what, Scripture explicitly calls a “type.” A more minimalist definition based on broader (but still biblical) parameters encourages a little more more interpretive liberty with the text and perhaps less inclination to dogmatism. Probably the best solution, as Ken suggests, is to acknowledge both a general definition and a technical definition.


The issue of systematic theological conclusions brings me to one final point that both Greg and (more briefly) Ken commented on: Hebrew 5-7. Commenting on Hebrews 5:11-12, Greg writes that the author of Hebrews

is implying that these believers should have already been teaching truths such as the fact that Jesus is a high priest like Melchizedek, when instead many of them have not matured beyond a basic understanding of apostolic teaching.

Others, have similarly argued that this passage does not present the Melchizedek-Christ connection as a matter of Spirit-revelation and inspiration but, rather, teaches that we are to be drawing these very kinds of systematic theological inferences ourselves; what stands in the way is only our own immaturity and ignorance of Scripture. In other words, any mature believer ought to have been able to come up with Hebrews 7 on his own. I disagree.

A careful reading of the actual wording of the passage shows that what the writer faults the readers for is not that they were failing to draw these systematic theological inferences for themselves, but that they were spiritually unprepared to receive what the author wanted to reveal about Christ and Melchizedek,

of whom we have many things to say and hard to explain since you have become dull of hearing (5:11).

First, the epistolographer says (Heb 5:12) not that they should already be teachers of these things, but simply that they should be teachers capable of readily grasping all he wanted to say. Their problem is that they are sluggish hearers of truth, not sloppy systematic theologians. His point is, “You should be able to handle this,” not “You should have already figured this out by now.” The argument that the readers are rebuked for failing to reach these systematic theological conclusions about Melchizedek on their own is not communicated in the text, but must be inferred; whether it is a logical and necessary inference is debatable.

Second, I don’t know how we can dichotomize between truth that is, in fact, conveyed through the process of inspiration (e.g., Hebrews 5-7) and how that truth was obtained in the first place. Does inspiration play no role here in terms of the authoritativeness of a theological reasoning process and its statement in Scripture? If the writer’s point is that the Christ-Melchizedek connection is so painfully obvious, why does its first mention come so late in the epistolary literature? Of course it’s obvious in revelational hindsight, but would we (should we) have come to all the conclusions of Hebrews 7 if we never had Hebrews 7? And more importantly, even if we had, wouldn’t we still be arguing over how justified and authoritative those conclusions were, without Hebrews 7?

Lastly, is Hebrews 7 really intended to be a paradigm of what any relatively mature believer should be able to deduce authoritatively on the basis of nothing more than a three-verse slice from a rather obscure historical narrative (Gen 14:18-20) and a single verse of prophetic poetry (Ps 110:4)? Mightn’t that open the field pretty broadly for concocting dogmatic assertions on slender bases? One writer argues that Melchizedek’s offer of “bread and wine” to Abraham typifies the NT communion observance. Maybe. But may one insist that such an inference is equally as intentional and authoritative as anything else Hebrews 7 says? After all, he could argue, he’s just following the paradigm of Hebrews 5-7for drawing systematic theological conclusions. On what basis could we argue against the alleged authority of such a conclusion, especially when it does not actually contradict any other truth?

Maybe I just opened the door to the next Theologyin3D blog discussion. We’ll see.

7 responses to “To Type or Not To Type”

  1. Greg Stiekes says:

    Your push-back against my example from Hebrews 5 is noted. I will walk through that door and the Hebrews 5 – 7 passage more carefully in my next post. Thanks for the thoughtful conversation!

  2. Ken Casillas says:

    Thanks for this, LT. It overlaps with the basic concern of my post…. If we don’t have some parameters for the identification of types, then the possible types become as prolific as the imagination of any particular reader. Which is exactly what has happened among past interpreters, even among dispensationalists who are supposedly committed to grammatical-historical interpretation. See the original Scofield Bible on Genesis 24.

  3. David Minnick says:

    I think you concluded with my basic concern over a proliferation of “types” that the NT itself does not specifically draw: non-falsifiability. I remember listening to a lecture given by a prominent pastor on the matter of discipleship methodology in the context of the local church. He prefaced his lecture with the statement that he was open to criticism of any of the exegesis he put forth in support of his conclusions in the lecture. He noted that no one had yet criticized him for any of it. I determined to find a hole somewhere. I couldn’t, but not because anything he said was problematic but because there was no exegesis to criticize. It was all “sanctified speculation.” Granted, the lecture was the fruit of a mature pastoral ministry. Nevertheless, he would have no business pressing his conclusions as biblically mandated upon anyone. He would have no business calling it “Bible” because it could or could not be adequately verified or falsified by Scripture. (In his defense, he presented the material in exactly that spirit of deference). I’m all for seeing connections, but if spiritual maturity is the result of the proclamation of the authoritative word of God concerning Christ (Colossians 1:28), someone with authorial authority has to govern which connections are valid and which are not. Somebody (with authority) has to determine whether we have really found Christ or not in the middle of Genesis 37–50. And, I’m not finding a great deal of wide-open-door liberty granted me by the NT authors.

    • Ethan says:

      I wonder if Fundamentalists have kind of created this problem. It seems we sometimes mistake Bible-informed worldview with Bible exegesis. Because we feel we need a verse for everything, we’re encouraged to misapply passages. But sometimes a contribution is valuable just because it’s wise and mature. It doesn’t need a verse in order to be true. It seems like recognizing that may relieve some of the pressure to squeeze unintended meaning out of Bible passages.

  4. Ken and David make a great point. There need to be parameters for identifying Authorially intended types, and a willingness to differentiate authoritative types from possible types from parallels from (shall we say) “interesting observations.” Otherwise “typology” can become a backdoor form of allegorical interpretation that overshadows or even obscures the historical-grammatical significance of the text.

  5. Ethan says:

    Maybe it’s a difference between Providential foreshadowing and allegory? Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Maybe that provides a way to have “types” in a loose, sense without turning them into allegory?

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