The Christological Character of Typological Reading

An open Bible with article text on opposite ends, blue font words that read Christ and Typology

To read any book well, we need a “read” upon the sort of text that the book is. For example, while both could be purchased in the typical bookstore, a recipe book must be “read” very differently from a Shakespearean play. The recipe book invites its “reader” to follow its instructions in the process of preparing a dish, while the more committed “reader” of the Shakespearean play might be inspired to assemble a company to perform it.

These may be more extreme examples, but similar things could be said about reading a book of poetry, a scientific textbook, a work of history, or a novel. Each of these, of course, have their own subcategories: we will read a magical realistic novel with different expectations from a detective novel. With familiar categories such as “play,” “recipe,” “haiku,” “horror,” or “memoir” at our disposal, we grasp a variety of forms and genres of texts and have some idea of the principles of reading fitting to each.

But the Bible is a very different sort of book than something like a cookbook or play. How are we to come to grips with the sort of text that the Bible is? And having done so, how ought this to impact how we read it?

The “problem” of Scripture as a diverse canon

We use the broad term “genre” to speak of the multitude of categories by which we classify the manifold forms, styles, and contents of works, each with their associated conventions. When reading the Bible, we repeatedly apply (often subconsciously) similar principles of “genre” to classify the diversity of its material, both between and within its books. What it means to “read” a psalm well, for instance, will differ from what it means to read a parable, a historical narrative, or a visionary text like Revelation.

If, however, the Bible is more than the sum of its parts—something greater than a mere miscellany of disconnected texts of diverse kinds—we need some grip upon it as a whole—as Holy Scripture—so as to consider how we might read each part in light of the whole. Without such a purchase, we can easily fragment the Bible’s material across a multitude of genres and subgenres.

One might also all too easily reduce the Bible’s material to instances of something more “generic.” One might classify the whole Bible as “religious Scriptures,” classed alongside the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, or Bhagavad Gita.

We could approach its internal diversity similarly. One might treat the Bible as a collection of material to be classed under a variety of general categories to be read in much the same way as if they were not part of the canon at all. Reading the Bible “as literature,” for instance, can yield significant insights, but if this were the only reading we used, we would reduce the text to something considerably less than it is. Even the category of “history” can lead to comparable problems. The Bible is not less than “literature” or “history,” but as Holy Scripture it is much more than either.

At the same time, many critiques of figural or typological reading have rightly identified the danger of readings of Scripture that would impose an alien scheme of interpretation upon the text. Allegorical readings of Scripture have often faced such criticisms on account of the seeming liberties they take with the sense of the text. Rather than answering to the invitation and guidance of the Scripture itself, allegorical readings have often seemed to involve the imposition of a non-scriptural philosophical method of reading upon the text, effacing its plain sense.

Reading the Bible as Holy Scripture, as a text that is unique but not alien and variegated but not fragmented, we need some principles to guide us.

The possibility of Christological reading

Scriptural texts such as Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 10 give warrant to reading Scripture as a unified account that bears witness to Christ.

The Christological basis for typological reading

Christians have long found instruction in Jesus’s teaching to his disciples after his resurrection. In Luke 24, Jesus spoke to the two travelers on the road to Emmaus:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25–27 ESV)

Later he addressed the Twelve:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:44–47 ESV)

In such statements, Christ indicates that he is the ultimate referent of the entire Scriptures and that they bear a unified testimony to him: “it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39 ESV).

In other words, the grounds for Christian figural readings is not some philosophical commitment to a particular hermeneutical method brought to the text from without, but Christ’s very statements concerning the Scriptures. As Andrew Louth observes,

It can hardly be claimed that allegory is arbitrary: allegory is firmly related to the mystery of Christ, it is a way of relating the whole of Scripture to that mystery, a way of making a synthetic vision out of the images and events of the Biblical narrative.1

The Scripture’s own Christological reading of itself

First Corinthians 10 is a classic text for typological reading, one of several examples where the Holy Scripture engages in typological reading of itself. In this passage, the apostle Paul retells the story of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, describing it in a manner designed to highlight the similarities, continuity, unity, and typological bond between Israel’s experience and that of the church.

  • To a church composed of both Jews and Gentiles, Paul describes the Exodus generation as “our fathers” (10:1).
  • He identifies Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea as their being “baptized into Moses” (10:2).
  • He describes the Lord’s provision of manna and water in a manner intended to evoke the celebration of the Eucharist (10:3–4).
  • Perhaps most arresting of all, Paul speaks of Christ himself as present in Israel’s wilderness wanderings: “the [spiritual] Rock was Christ” (10:4) whom they put to the test (10:9).
  • Israel’s wilderness experiences, Paul declares, “happened to them as an example for us” (10:6; cf. 10:11) and were recorded in the Scriptures “for our instruction” (10:11).

The experience of the church is similar to that of the Israelites in the Exodus in ways that justify Paul’s describing the latter in terms that are more typical of the former. Paul’s characterization of the Exodus generation as “our fathers” manifests his sense that the experience of Christians is continuous with that of Israel. Locating Christ in the wilderness narrative, Paul finds unity between the experience of Israel and the church: they both experience Christ—the first in a veiled manner, the second more openly. Christ is the common reality of both Old and New Testament revelation. Finally, a typological bond exists between Israel’s experience and that of the church’s: the things that befell Israel happened to them as examples and were recorded of them as revelation for us. The story of Israel in the wilderness is, when read as “an example” (τυπικῶς, 10:11), a story of Christ and his church.

In reading the Bible typologically, we read it Christologically. We follow the example of Christ’s own reading, encountering Christ himself within the text, which bears a unified witness to him.

From passages such as Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 10, we arrive at a sense of what it means to read the Bible as Holy Scripture: to read it as a unified witness to and revelation of Christ and his church, recorded for the building up of his people. In reading the Bible typologically, we read it Christologically. We follow the example of Christ’s own reading, encountering Christ himself within the text, which bears a unified witness to him.

Study the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament in passages like 1 Corinthians 10 using Logos’s New Testament Use of the Old Testament interactive media.

To examine intertextual references in more depth, use Logos’s New Testament Use of the Old Testament interactive media. Learn more about this feature in Logos, if you don’t already have it.

Arriving at a substantive Christological hermeneutic

First Corinthians 10, alongside Luke 24, reveals the possibility and appropriateness of such a reading, even though it does not articulate the principles by which such a reading ought to be undertaken. Christopher Seitz writes:

What is crucial to observe is that just how that referentiality was spotted, and where it manifested itself, is never declared in the plain sense of the NT witness. Luke 24 is decisive for indicating that such a “Christian reading” is available across the witness of the Old Testament and that the warrant for this comes from Christ himself, and also intrinsically from the old witness: it is a sense that is there; it is a sense that is disclosed for what it is; it is not a sense that is added on, exteriorly, a posteriori. The things about Christ are really there in Moses and all the prophets and Christ can point to them. But nowhere does the Gospel of Luke feel constrained to offer specific examples of just how the church of the risen Christ is meant exhaustively to know how the plain sense of the Old will yield up its treasures.2

Pious though it might sound to speak of reading Scripture in the light of Christ, it might not be apparent how such a commitment could amount to anything of real hermeneutical substance. Beyond identifying occasional parallels to gospel realities in Old Testament narratives, what might a “Christological” reading entail? Indeed, is it even possible for a person to provide meaningful hermeneutical principles?

The answer, I am convinced, will be found in reflecting more closely upon Christ and, more particularly, upon specific dimensions of the Christ-event.

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Incarnation

The first such dimension is Christ’s incarnation. Christ is the “Word made flesh” (John 1:14). He is the true “substance” of Holy Scripture, once hidden in the womb of Old Testament witness but now delivered into the light.

Scripture cannot be reduced to mere literary conceit, but concerns real events in history.3 Biblical revelation does not finally terminate upon philosophical ideas, theological speculations, or moral doctrines, but upon Jesus Christ, who comes in the fulness of time (Gal 4:4) as the true manifestation of God. Christ arrives in the history of Israel, grounding the literal and historical sense of the Old Testament Scriptures in his person: the New Testament begins with a genealogy that alludes to the entire span of Israel’s history and situates Christ within it. Andrew Louth writes:

The Old Testament builds up a context, a matrix, in which the mystery of Christ can be incarnated. To become man is not just a physical fact, but a cultural event: in the Old Testament the cultural matrix is developed in which this can be possible.4

In Colossians 2:17, the apostle Paul exhorts the hearers of his epistle to recognize the contrast between shadowy anticipatory signs and the “substance,” which “belongs to Christ.” The substance of Christ was always present, albeit veiled. When Paul speaks of Christ as the Rock in the wilderness, or of the Israelites putting him to the test in 1 Corinthians 10, he indicates that the old covenant order is not denigrated as characterized by empty signs of an absent future reality, but a reality present though still concealed.

In Christ we find the fullness and consummation of God’s revelation. All Holy Scripture finds its substance and ultimate referent in him.

In Christ we find the fullness and consummation of God’s revelation. He is the telos of the whole. His person is the reality that grants it all coherence. He is the true temple of God’s dwelling amid humanity. In him the will of God expressed in the Law is embodied in action. All Holy Scripture finds its substance and ultimate referent in him.

Transfiguration

On the Mount of Transfiguration, the glory of Christ was revealed, disclosing his identity as the Son and Word of the Father (Matt 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36). He is the one in whom the work of God is finally accomplished, witnessed to by the Law and the Prophets. In the transfiguration, the one at the heart of Israel’s history, the one who would bring it to its consummation, is unveiled. Kevin Vanhoozer writes:

The transfiguration is a mini-summa that recalls God’s presence in the history of Israel and anticipates the consummation of the covenant: the glory of God’s presence in his people and all creation. As such, it provides program notes as it were for understanding the whole narrative sweep of Scripture.5

The glory seen on the Mount of Transfiguration anticipates the awaited unveiling of the exalted Christ in the new heavens and new earth. In 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, the apostle Paul treats the “glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6) as a hermeneutical key to the meaning of the Scriptures. Paul references Exodus 34, where Moses veiled his shining face, which reflected the glory of God. In Christ, the veil shrouding the face of “Moses”—the Torah—is removed and the glory of Christ is seen in the Scriptures. Vanhoozer characterizes this as “transfigural” interpretation:

This “Spirited” referent (for this is how we should now think of the spiritual sense) is the “glory” of the literal sense: the divinely intended meaning. Typology is less a matter of sensus plenior than of sensus splendidior—the “how much more” glorious referent that the letter signifies when seen in the radiant light of the event of Jesus Christ. As the transfiguration displays the glory of the Son in and through his flesh, so “transfigural” interpretation discovers the glory of the prophetic word in the “body” of its text. De Lubac has it right: “the Old Testament lives on, transfigured, in the New.”6

“Transfigural” reading of Scripture sees the glory of Christ in the text and the text in the glory of Christ.

Cross and resurrection

The third dimension of the Christ-event is the cross and resurrection. The cross and resurrection, more than any other part of the Christ-event, encapsulate its greater shape. At their heart, the Gospels declare Christ’s death and his rising again, his “sufferings … and the subsequent glories” (1 Pet 1:11 ESV). These provide the focus of the witness of the Holy Scripture, not only in the Gospel accounts, but also in anticipatory prophecy.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3–4 ESV; cf. Luke 24:44–47)

In this pattern of death and resurrection, we find a focus for the Old Testament’s prefiguration of Christ:

  • Christ is Isaac nearly sacrificed on the mountain and then delivered.
  • He is Joseph sent down into Egypt and raised up to rule.
  • He is Israel brought up out of Egypt in the Exodus.
  • He is the Ark of the Covenant descending into Philistia and being brought up again.
  • He is David fleeing from Saul before he would receive the kingdom, or leaving Jerusalem during the coup of Absalom and then being restored.
  • He is Jonah in the belly of the big fish.
  • He is Daniel delivered from the lion’s den.
  • He is the temple destroyed and rebuilt.
  • He is the exile who returns from the far country.

The cross-and-resurrection shape of the Christ-event also becomes paradigmatic for Christian discipleship. We are to take up our crosses and follow him (Matt 10:38; 16:24). We are to have the mindset modeled by Christ in his humbling to the point of death (Phil 2:5–11), following the example that he left us (1 Pet 2:21–25).

Pentecost

Christ is the Man of the Spirit, the one who has the Spirit without measure. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16), pouring out his life-giving Spirit upon his church at Pentecost (Acts 2:33). The gift of Christ’s Spirit empowers the church to speak with authority and effectiveness. Juxtaposed with the deliverance of the Law at Sinai, the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is the writing of the Law upon the heart, as promised in passages such as Jeremiah 31:33–34 or Ezekiel 36:26–27.

Pentecost further helps us to recognize the participation of the church in the word of Christ. Christ gives flaming tongues to his church and places his word within them, so that they might obey, proclaim, and embody its truth. Our lives and bodies are conscripted by Christ’s word, dwelling within us as we declare it (Col 3:16).

Parousia

The final dimension of the Christ-event to consider is Parousia. In Christ, God’s future is made known and inaugurated. The awaited resurrection and new creation are seen in Christ as our pioneer and forerunner. When we see him as he is, we will be like him (1 John 3:2). The full manifestation of the mystery of Christ still awaits us, and the future for which we long is his appearance.

In reading Holy Scripture typologically, we do not merely recognize an escalation of realities upon a horizontal plane, but an elevation to realities on a higher plane. As the book of Hebrews argues, for instance, the temple and its sacrifices are “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb 8:5 ESV). However, Christ’s work operates upon “the heavenly things themselves” (Heb 9:23 ESV), not mere copies. The awaited appearance of Christ from heaven is the unveiling of the heavenly things themselves, the unveiling of the true and climactic Word.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb 1:1–4 ESV)

Aligning the Christ-event with the fourfold sense

Attentive readers might recognize that the Christological paradigm for typological reading that I am advancing here maps onto the fourfold sense of Holy Scripture popular in the medieval age. This fourfold sense, sometimes referred to as the Quadriga, identified literal, typological, tropological, and anagogical interpretations as integral to the sense of the Scripture.

  • The literal, perhaps the sense with which we are most accustomed as moderns, concerns the ordinary literary sense of a passage, typically that of a historical record.
  • The typological discovers Christ and his kingdom figured in the text.
  • The tropological offers moral direction.
  • The anagogical raises our gaze up to heavenly realities and forward to awaited ones.

The incarnation grounds the literal sense, securing the sense of Holy Scripture in history and its events. The transfiguration manifests the allegorical sense, the glory of Christ that is veiled in the letter of Scripture. The cross and resurrection display the moral or tropological sense of Scripture, the shape of the righteous life exemplified in Christ. The Parousia is the disclosure and descent of the heavenly referents to earth, the anagogical sense embodied in the Savior for whose return and unveiling we pray.

Finally, the event of Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit of Christ, enables the church to perceive, participate in, and proclaim the Word in its fuller reality. By the Spirit we can find the veiled glory of Christ in the letter of Holy Scripture, discover the form of Christ in his sufferings and glories, and anticipate the higher heavenly realities concerning which they bear witness. As the apostle Paul expresses, the Spirit discloses the glories of Scripture, transforms its readers, and empowers them for witness:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:17–18 ESV)

Continue your study on Christological interpretation

Jordan, James B. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World. Wipf and Stock, 1999.

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  1. Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 121.
  2. Christopher Seitz, The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 143.
  3. Louth, Discerning the Mystery, 119.
  4. Louth, Discerning the Mystery, 120.
  5. Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, eds., Heaven on Earth? Theological Interpretation in Ecumenical Dialogue(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2013), 220.
  6. Boersma and Levering, Heaven on Earth?, 222.
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Written by
Alastair Roberts

Alastair J. Roberts (PhD, Durham University) is adjunct Senior Fellow at the Theopolis Institute, a teaching fellow at the Davenant Institute, and co-author of Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture (2018). He is currently completing a chapter-by-chapter commentary on the whole Bible.

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Written by Alastair Roberts
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