What’s Typology? Patterns of Creation in Redemptive History

A word collage from the article about typology in the Bible

If we are to learn to read the Bible well, we must learn the language in which it speaks. I don’t specifically mean Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—though those may be helpful, to be sure. I mean that we must familiarize ourselves with the characteristic ways that the Scriptures communicate, the strategies and conventions that the biblical authors employ to evoke prior texts and events, trigger thematic associations, signal theological significance, and in so doing disclose meaning in a manner that transcends the mere definitions of the words they use.

The language of the Bible, and the language we must learn, is the language of typology.

God works in patterns, and he writes the story of Scripture in patterns to alert us to the patterns he has woven into the story of history. Typological interpretation of the Bible seeks to discern the presence and progression of these patterns. It does so in order to appreciate how God’s action coherently and cumulatively builds toward his goal for creation in Jesus Christ and how we as God’s people are to conceive of and live within his story of the world.

Defining typology

Typology refers to the divinely intended historical relationship of correspondence and intensification between earlier and later events, persons, or institutions. A “type” is the earlier entity which establishes or contributes to a pattern that prefigures, foreshadows, or anticipates a subsequent “antitype.” An “antitype” is the later entity that corresponds to and intensifies the pattern established in the type.1

When Paul identifies Adam as “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom 5:14 ESV)—that is, Jesus—he indicates that Adam’s role, action, and significance in God’s grand narrative points forward to Jesus, who fulfills and escalates the Adamic pattern. In other words, if you want to really understand Adam, you need to see him as an anticipation of Jesus, and if you want to really understand Jesus, you need to see him as a newer and truer Adam.

Crucially, typology is not merely a textual or literary phenomenon. It is not the case that biblical authors simply elected to tell later stories in the pattern of earlier ones, that the discernible patterns in Scripture are nothing more than the creative, stylistic, literary flourishes of master storytellers. Rather, redemptive history itself is typological. God has crafted the story of his creation in a series of intensifying patterns. The divinely inspired textual and literary patterns in the biblical accounts, then, reveal divinely crafted patterns in history.2

More than a strategy for reading Scripture, typological interpretation involves a framework of imagination for reading the entire world—a patterned sensibility that is shaped by the patterned story of the Bible.

Redemptive history itself is typological. God has crafted the story of his creation in a series of intensifying patterns.

Because types are God-intended anticipations of future antitypes, typology involves a prophetic element. But whereas predictive prophecy involves explicit verbal declarations that find fulfillment in later events, typology functions more indirectly—establishing patterned expectations that are answered and exceeded in a subsequent antitype. Predictive prophecy overtly signals what is to come, but typology is fully appreciated only in retrospect: once an antitype emerges in fulfillment of a typological pattern, the care and coherence of God’s expectation-setting directing of history comes ever more clearly into focus.3

Typology should also be distinguished from allegory. Though allegory and typology both point beyond themselves, allegorical interpretations tend to dehistoricize and spiritualize texts in a quest for timeless, abstracted truths. Typology, in contrast, affirms the historical reality of the events narrated in the biblical text while simultaneously acknowledging that the type is also a God-intended foreshadowing of what is to come. So, for example, an allegorical interpretation might conclude that the conquest of Canaan did not happen as narrated but is really only symbolic of the believer’s battle against sin or God’s purpose to overcome spiritual powers. A typological interpretation, on the other hand, would maintain that the biblical narrative of Israel’s driving out the Canaanite nations is historically true. But it would also see in it a pattern expanded and fulfilled in Jesus. As in the Canaan conquest, Jesus drives out demonic powers from Israel during his earthly ministry (e.g., Matt 4:24; 8:16; 9:33), Christ’s triumphs over spiritual enemies in his resurrection (Col 2:15), and the Lord will remove of every unholiness from his restored cosmos (Rev 20:11–22:5). Likewise, the church goes into all the nations of the world as a new Israel into a new promised land—baptizing enemies into Christ’s kingdom (Matt 28:18–20), destroying strongholds, and taking thoughts captive through the open proclamation of the gospel (2 Cor 10:3–5), waging war against the forces of darkness (Eph 6:10–20), and conquering through faithfulness unto death (Rev 12:11).4

Theological presuppositions behind typology

Typological interpretation of the Bible is grounded in a number of theological commitments regarding God, Scripture, and history.5

Divine sovereignty

Typology assumes God’s sovereignty over history, his authorial crafting of the grand story of his world. If a type is indeed a divinely ordained anticipation of a future antitype, then God must be at work in every step of history’s developing narrative, interweaving the various threads of revelatory patterns into their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ and his consummation of the cosmos. If an antitype’s correspondence to and intensification of the pattern established in a type is really more than a literary framing or a historical coincidence, then history must progress as God intends as he exercises sovereign and providential control over the unfolding drama of all creation.

Scriptural inspiration and trustworthiness

In addition to God’s sovereign authorship of history, typology assumes his sovereign authorship of the Bible.

The claim that Scripture is inspired (2 Tim 3:16) means that, as human authors wrote according to their personalities, cultures, and literary conventions, God was at work superintending the process such that their truly human words are also truly God’s words—carrying all the authority and trustworthiness of God. Consequently, the literary patterns employed by human authors are simultaneously the craftsmanship of the divine author, God-intended textual indicators that reveal the historical patterns of his sovereign work in the world. The typological text of the Bible, written down by humans, is God’s own telling of his story, a literary lens through which we are to perceive the whole of history and the cosmos.

Scripture’s unity and Christocentricity

Relatedly, typological interpretation assumes that, as God’s narrative of his acts in history, the Bible is a coherent, unified story—not a mere collection of unrelated texts. Every step of the way, God has been working toward his goal for history and all of creation, weaving typological patterns into earlier scenes in order to set the stage for the story’s grand reveal.

God has been working toward his goal for history and all of creation, weaving typological patterns into earlier scenes in order to set the stage for the story’s grand reveal.

More specifically, Scripture’s unity centers around the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is the climax and consummator of redemptive history. Jesus himself resolutely affirms that all of the Scriptures bear witness and lead up to him (e.g., Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39, 46). The New Testament authors accordingly tell his story typologically, utilizing the “grammar” of Old Testament patterns to disclose to us all the ways he fulfills God’s promises and purposes.

Identifying typology

How do biblical authors indicate a typological connection? And, accordingly, how are we as readers to detect typology within Scripture with confidence?

Typological interpretation is not a game of redemptive—historical free association. Rather, typological interpretation attends to and is rooted in the text.

The biblical authors regularly employ certain literary indicators to signal typological correspondence and invite reflection on a recurring pattern. Sometimes a text will clearly identify a type (Rom 5:14), offer a strong typological comparison (Matt 12:40), engage in an easily discernible form of typological reasoning (most of the book of Hebrews!), or present a typological fulfillment by simply shouting, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

More often, however, authors communicate typological correspondences in less obvious, more implicit ways, and we as readers would do well to look out for a few of their common strategies.6

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.

Intertextual reference

Intertextuality is the process by which later texts refer to, invoke, and draw upon earlier texts with the intention of stirring literary memory and generating associations. It can take the form of explicit quotations but also more subtle allusions or even mere echoes.

By hearkening to an earlier scriptural text, sometimes with only a carefully chosen word or two, biblical authors can import an entire passage as a grid, a framework, a lens for understanding the significance of a person or event. Intertextual reference thus serves as a concise and effective way for authors to express a typological relationship between two entities.7

For instance, in Genesis 9:1 we are told that God “blessed” Noah and his sons saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (ESV). Where have we heard that language before? God’s words to Noah are a verbatim repetition of Genesis 1:28, where the Lord blessed the first human pair and gave them the exact same commission. This quotation, therefore, serves as a textual invitation to interpret Noah typologically, according to the Adamic pattern established earlier in Genesis. Following the judgment of the flood, Noah functions as a new Adam—the beginning of a new humanity—who is called to go forth into a renewed creation just as the previous Adam was called to go forth into the old.

Narrative patterns

Sometimes, biblical authors signal a typological relationship, not by a recognizable reference to a single text, but by an intentional recapitulation of a broader narrative sequence. In such cases, the text invites typological reflection by repeating the pattern of an earlier series of events—a prior story—rather than by deploying a specific key term or phrase.

In one biblical story, Israel finds itself under the rule of a foreign king, a king who begins to fear that his power could be threatened. The king’s anxiety even spreads to his subjects, and in a savage attempt to preserve his power, the king orders the slaughter of Israelite sons. Those enlisted to help carry out the king’s plot, however, deceive the bloodthirsty ruler and refuse to participate in his plans. Amid this wider scene, the story focuses on one particular son who is spared from the king’s murderous plot. This son departs the king’s territory and lives away from his people for a time, but when the Lord reveals that those who sought the son’s life have died, he returns to his people in the land in order to rescue them and lead them to salvation.

Who is this story about? Any student of Matthew’s Gospel would recognize this as a summary of the infancy narrative of Jesus (Matt 2), and any student of Exodus would see that it is first the story of Moses (Exod 1–4). Matthew intentionally tells—and God sovereignly directs—the story of Jesus’s early years in a manner that unmistakably parallels the life of Moses. Why? Because Jesus is a new Moses who will lead Israel on a new exodus, out of their captivity and into the presence of God.

Detecting an author’s intertextual reference to a biblical passage or repetition of a narrative pattern, of course, requires intimate familiarity with the Scriptures upon which the biblical writers are constantly drawing. Consequently, one of the most important ways to hone one’s own typological senses is by saturating oneself in the scriptural narrative so that our ears are attuned to the associations and resonances that might otherwise escape our attention.

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Case study: creation typology across redemptive history

The following brief survey8 aims to highlight the typological character of the entire scriptural story and stimulate your typological imagination as your approach the Bible.

As we’ll see, Genesis 1–2 establishes a deep, foundational, recurring pattern for God’s work in history, a pattern that informs and illuminates almost every major development in the biblical narrative.

Creation

In the beginning, God crafts the heavens and the earth to be the dwelling place—the cosmic temple—where he will live among his creatures.

The Lord calls the dry land up from the watery depths on the third day and forms human beings as his royal image-bearers. He plants a garden in Eden to be the first sanctuary upon the earth where his glory will reside, and he sets image-bearing Adam in his presence to be a priest who serves and guards the garden (Gen 2:15), living in worship and joy before the face of the Lord. At creation, the habitable world rises through water and culminates in communion.

Flood

Adam’s failure to guard the garden and expel the intruding serpent results in the human pair being expelled—exiled—from the sanctuary of God’s presence. By Genesis 6, humanity east of Eden has corrupted creation and filled the world with bloody violence. God announces to Noah that he will send a flood: the deeps separated at the beginning will envelope the world again as creation is turned backwards. In the ark, God graciously preserves Noah and his family with him. Delivered through the de-creating judgment as the seed of restored humanity, Noah is a new Adam. The corrupted world dies, submerged under the waters of judgment, and rises again from the depths—cleansed, resurrected, born again. The flood is an act of new creation.

Exodus

When Israel is captive in Egypt, God repeats the pattern of creation. As an infant, Moses is rescued from death through water in a pitch-lined “ark” (the same term used in the flood narrative; cf. Exod 2:3; Gen 6:14)9—dramatically revealing that Moses will be a new Noahic deliverer for Israel. The plagues upon Egypt function as a progressive de-creation: every realm seemingly unwinds into chaos. At last God brings Israel up out of Egypt through the sea,10 but the waters of Israel’s deliverance close upon the Egyptian pursuers as waters of death. Israel, having descended down into Egypt,11 is raised to life as a new creation. God commissions them as his Adamic royal priesthood (Exod 19:6) and sets his Edenic sanctuary in their midst (the tabernacle). The exodus is a flood is a new creation.

Forty years later, following the death of a rebellious generation, Israel traverses through another parted sea, the Jordan, now to enter Canaan from the east—the new, abundant, Edenic land where God will abide in glory among his people. This journey through water toward communion completes what was begun in the exodus and marks Israel as a people re-created to live in the presence of God.

Exile and return

God had warned Adamic Israel that idolatry and unholiness would result in their Adamic expulsion—exile out of the Edenic land where he dwells. Frequently the Scriptures describe the threat of invading nations in aquatic metaphor as roaring sea, raging waters, and sweeping flood (e.g., Ps 65:7; 124:1–5; Isa 8:5–8; 17:12–13) that threaten to wash over Israel in the land. Israel’s exile reverses the exodus, returning the nation to captivity and wilderness. It is a flood that cleanses a polluted land, a de-creational death that plunges Israel back into the waters of the nations.

Yet the prophetic hope anticipates a new exodus that will once again part the waters and liberate Israel for life before God’s face. Exile means death. But just as God called up the land from the depths on the third day of creation, Hosea prophesies that he will raise up the nation on the third day “that we may live before him” (Hos 6:2; cf. Ezek 37:1–14). The anticipated return from exile is a new exodus, a Noahic deliverance through the enemy flood, a new creational resurrection from death in the sea of the nations.

Jesus and his church

Jesus’s ministry formally begins at his baptism, a descent into and rising up through water. This descent and rising both reveals Jesus as the one who will fulfill every angle of God’s multifaceted pattern of creation and previews how he will do so at the cross. In his crucifixion, Jesus is exiled to the captivity of the grave, and, fittingly, on the third day he rises in life as a new creation through the waters of death. Like Noah, he carries his people through the judgment flood, and like Moses leads all who follow him on a new exodus into communion with God.

In his crucifixion, Jesus is exiled to the captivity of the grave, and, fittingly, on the third day he rises in life as a new creation through the waters of death.

The church, among and within whom God sets the glory-Spirit of his presence (Acts 2:1–4), is the Edenic, sanctuarial community. God raises the church to life in Jesus’s journey up through the waters of death, and marks out his people by bringing them through baptismal waters that reenact the creational pattern of history. Baptism seals Christians as the family that has been restored from exile to God, liberated in an exodus from captivity into communion, delivered through the flood of judgment, and resurrected through water as a new creature destined for a renewed world. Baptism dramatizes Paul’s declaration:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Cor 5:17, my translation)

Consummation

As in the beginning, so in the end. The first creation was called up from the depths, and the completed creation will be raised through a renewing flood. The coming of the Son of Man will be like the deluge of Noah’s day (Matt 24:36–44; cf. 2 Pet 3:1–7), sweeping away the wicked in judgment to purge the world for the unmitigated blessing of communion with God.

Jesus’s resurrection within history was the in-breaking of God’s new creation, and the entire cosmos will at history’s end participate in Christ’s re-creational resurrection when he returns in a flood of judgment, cleanses all unholiness, raises his renewed world, and consummates creation as God’s universal Eden (Rev 21:1–22:5)—the unbreakable dwelling place of God with his people!

Resources for further study

Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New

Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New

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Typology: Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns; How Old Testament Expectations are Fulfilled in Christ

Typology: Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns; How Old Testament Expectations are Fulfilled in Christ

Regular price: $39.99

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Biblical Typology: How the Old Testament Points to Christ, His Church, and the Consummation

Biblical Typology: How the Old Testament Points to Christ, His Church, and the Consummation

Regular price: $19.99

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40 Questions about Typology and Allegory (40 Questions Series)

40 Questions about Typology and Allegory (40 Questions Series)

Regular price: $23.99

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New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity Diversity of Scripture (IVP Reference Collection)

New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity Diversity of Scripture (IVP Reference Collection)

Regular price: $44.99

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Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels

Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels

Regular price: $39.99

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Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation

Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation

Regular price: $24.99

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Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Regular price: $64.99

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Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

Regular price: $74.99

Add to cart
Ad: Take the Next Step toward Next-Level Bible Study for Only $49.99 with Logos Fundamentals. Click to get it.
  1. See the detailed discussion of G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 13–18.
  2. See James Bejon, “Biblical Repetition and the God of History,” Cateclesia Institute, May 20, 2020, https://cateclesia.com/2020/05/20/biblical-repetition-and-the-god-of-history/.
  3. That said, the Old Testament regularly casts future expectations in typological terms drawn from past figures. Consider how David becomes the typological mold for messianic expectation. The Old Testament contains typological Davidic anticipation. But even in this case, Jesus offers a surprising kind of fulfillment that can only be appreciated in retrospect.
  4. See Trevor Laurence, “Gospel Conquest,” Cateclesia Institute, April 10, 2020, https://cateclesia.com/2020/04/10/gospel-conquest/.
  5. Cf. the helpful discussion in Mitchell L. Chase, 40 Questions about Typology and Allegory (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2020), 41–45.
  6. On this topic, see James M. Hamilton Jr., Typology: Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns (Grand Rapids. MI: Zondervan Academic, 2022), 20–26.
  7. Especially illuminating in this regard is Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016).
  8. To be sure, in what follows, I barely scratch the surface of this particular pattern.
  9. Fascinatingly, these are the only two narratives in which this specific Hebrew term is used in the whole Old Testament.
  10. God regularly describes his exodus work as bringing Israel up out of Egypt, e.g., Lev 11:45.
  11. The journey to Egypt is characteristically described in the Bible as a “going down,” e.g., Gen 12:10.
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Written by
Trevor Laurence

Trevor Laurence (PhD, University of Exeter) is the executive director of the Cateclesia Institute. He serves as Theologian-in-Residence at Trinity Church (PCA) in Winston-Salem, NC, and as a research associate with the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. He is the author of Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer.

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Written by Trevor Laurence
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