The Differences Between Typology and Allegory

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In recent theological scholarship there is a move to combine typology and allegory under the heading of figural reading.[1] Many Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) advocates view typology and allegory as lying on a continuum, or posit that both belong to the same family of reading strategies. Much of this is driven by the push for theological retrieval, with TIS proponents arguing that distinguishing typology and allegory in the early church writings is impossible. Further, they argue that the patristic writers rightly applied literal and spiritual senses because the biblical texts carry deeper meanings that point beyond itself.

1. E.g. Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 46–51; John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 2005); Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Waco, TX: Baylor University, 2014), 1–3, 104–5.

In some quarters of past evangelical scholarship, typology and allegory were distinguished in a simplistic or reductionistic manner. When one says that typology involves history and thus is acceptable while allegory is non-historical and to be rejected, this is an overly simplified attempt of distinguishing them. Further, while some evangelical scholars have appealed to church history to categorize typology as the approach of the Antiochene school (a notable figure being John Chrysostom) and allegory as the method of the Alexandrian school (influenced by Origen) in the fourth century, but this has been shown to be misguided.[2] Nevertheless, careful Bible readers must distinguish typology and allegory in order to avoid confusion and interpretative mistakes. Another critically important distinction is to separate biblical typology and allegory from typological or allegorical interpretation. This article seeks to address both issues in what follows.

2. See David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now: Contemporary Hermeneutics in the Light of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992); Gerald Bray, Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996), 104–7.

Typology Is Not Allegory

Allegory and typology have literary characteristics that differ in the Bible. Just as there are many figures of speech and nonliteral language—metaphors, hyperboles, synecdoche, and metonymy—so there are also parables, symbols, analogies, prophecies, allegories, and typologies in Scripture as well. At a most basic level, an allegory is “to mean something other than what one says.”[3] Allegory as a literary form is an extended metaphor or a trope that illustrates a story or conveys a truth by personifying abstract concepts.[4] In an allegory, meaning is extended in terms of parallels or analogies between two or more ideas. A common example of an allegory is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. But allegory is also found in Scripture; examples include Ezekiel 17:1–10, Ecclesiastes 12:3–7, Psalm 80:8–15, John 10:1–16, Ephesians 6:1–11, and arguably Matthew 22:1–14. In each of these passages there are literary features of extended metaphors or figures that represent or symbolize certain truths or concepts. In sum, an allegory describes a larger narrative episode that has features laden with symbols.

3. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 113–14.

4. Jon Whitman, Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), 3–5.

On the other hand, typology in Scripture is a special and unique phenomenon of special revelation. Biblical types are particular Old Testament persons, events, actions, and institutions that God has providentially intended and invested to correspond to, foreshadow, and prefigure escalated and intensified New Testament realities (antitypes).[5] There are many examples of types, such as Adam, the flood, the exodus, Melchizedek, the sacrificial system, the temple, and so on. Allegory features an episode with many elements of metaphor and imagery to convey a truth or idea. However, typological patterns in Scripture are more discrete as real phenomena—persons and events—correspond and anticipate future fulfillment in similar, yet different persons and events—primarily Jesus Christ and the redemption he accomplishes. Typology generally involves a heavenly prototype or archetype which corresponds to an Old Testament copy or shadow (the type), which in turn points to and is fulfilled in the New Testament antitype. For example, the heavenly temple is the archetype of the tabernacle/temple (Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5) which in turn is a type of the antitypical temple: Christ (John 1:14, 51; 2:14–22; 4:20–24) and his people (1 Cor. 3:16–17; Eph. 2:19–22; 1 Pet. 2:4–10; Rev. 21:11). Or think of man made in the image of God and sonship typology: Adam is a shadow of the heavenly man—Jesus, the archetype—but Adam is also a type of the heavenly reality that comes to earth, Jesus (Rom. 5:12–21). Old Testament types have their own independent meaning that is a significant departure from most forms of allegory where the thing signified is bound-up with the imagery. In other words, the persons, events, and institutions have their own meaning in the historical context in which they lived or occurred, and yet have a typological function in pointing forward to the greater realities to come. When thinking of allegory as a genre, this historical aspect and reality is not present. The allegory consists of symbols and imagery throughout.

5. See Richard Davidson, Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical ΤΥΠΟΣ Structures, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, vol. 2 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 1981), 405–6. Note also Richard M. Davidson, “The Eschatological Hermeneutic of Biblical Typology,” TheoRhēma 6 (2011): 5–48.

Moreover, there is a principle of analogy in typology just as there is in allegory, but not of surface imagery, which is wrapped in metaphor and encoded to parallel some other idea or concept. Typology, unlike allegory, has development and takes shape as later biblical authors build upon earlier written texts with the typological connections progressing along the covenantal stages of redemptive history. Typological patterns, then, are primarily discerned through the progress of revelation (the textual, epochal, and canonical horizons). Typology actually shows more affinity with prophecy than it does with allegory. In fact, many scholars classify typology as a form of indirect prophecy. G.K. Beale, to cite one example, observes how typology “indicates fulfillment of the indirect prophetic adumbrations of events, people and institutions from the Old Testament in Christ who now is the final, climatic expression of all God ideally intended through these things in the Old Testament.”[6] 

6. G. K. Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? An Examination of the Presuppositions of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ Exegetical Method,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 396. See also G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 17–18, 57–66.

These features of allegory and typology need to be accounted for, and such observations should not be obliterated by confusingly lumping allegory and typology into a general category of figural. Although different, both allegory and typology are revelatory in nature, divinely authorized, and they are embedded in Scripture by the biblical authors rather than created by the literary genius of later writers of Scripture or subsequent interpreters.

Biblical Typology and Allegory Are Not Typological or Allegorical Interpretation

Second, beware of notions of figural reading, allegorical interpretation, and typological interpretation. Bible readers are to recognize and identify the allegories and typologies intended as such in Scripture, but one is not at liberty to craft figural, allegorical, or typological interpretations, as these lead to fanciful and arbitrary readings. To allegorize a passage in Scripture is to overlay an external or extra-textual grid over the text, thus introducing a spiritual sense or foreign aspect into its meaning. When early church fathers found spiritual significance in the dimensions of the ark, or in the outstretched arms of Moses (Exod. 17:8–13) as a type of Christ on the cross, they allegorized the historical narrative. While such connections may sound amazing and clever, these hermeneutical leaps actually do violence to the original context of the passage.

The same danger applies to typological interpretation. As Ardel Caneday has astutely observed:

Typological interpretation, using the adjective to modify interpretation, creates confusion by focusing upon the act of interpretation rather than upon the act of revelation. . . . [T]ypology and allegory are fundamentally categories that belong to the act of revelation, not the act of interpretation. The reader discovers types and allegories that are already present in the text.[7]

7. A. B. Caneday, “Covenant Lineage Allegorically Prefigured: ‘Which Things Are Written Allegorically’ (Galatians 4:21–31),” SBJT 14 (2010): 68n5, emphasis original. See also Ardel Caneday, “Biblical Types: Revelation Concealed in Plain Sight to be Disclosed—‘These Things Occurred Typologically to Them and Were Written Down for Our Admonition’,” in God’s Glory Revealed in Christ: Essays on Biblical Theology in Honor of Thomas R. Schreiner, ed. Denny Burk, James M. Hamilton, Jr., Brian Vickers (Nashville: B&H, 2019), 136, 141–42, 147.

The notion of “typological” and “allegorical” interpretations or “prosopological exegesis” subtly expresses a form of reader-response hermeneutics, but the task of the faithful reader is to explicate the meaning of the text by attending to the authorial intent and their usage of literary forms. Allegorizing or seeing types everywhere (a.k.a “hyper-typing”) is wrong. Rather, we read the Bible faithfully by reading an allegory according to its literary nature in context, and by seeing typology only after demonstrating the textual warrant and indicators for typological patterns (e.g., showing the correspondence and escalation between type and antitype, but more, demonstrating the prophetic aspect of the type from the Old Testament itself). We must avoid language that suggests that the reader crafts the figural connections. Scripture cannot be treated as a wax nose to be carved and shaped according to a host of superficial analogies and correspondences.

Conclusion

There is much more to discuss regarding this topic. Many questions remain such as: did New Testament authors like Paul allegorize the Old Testament (Galatians 4:21–31 being an example)? And if so, does that give us warrant to allegorize? I direct the reader to other works that show that Paul did not allegorize or de-historicize the text or apply an extratextual philosophical scheme, but instead expected his readers to recognize the larger-than-life aspects already present in the Old Testament.[8] The important point for this brief study is that biblical typology and allegory must be distinguished, and second, we must remember that these categories are fundamentally in the domain of revelation and not foremost an interpretative endeavor.[9]

8. See the important study by Caneday, “Covenant Lineage Allegorically Prefigured,” 50–77.

9. For further treatment of the distinction between typology and allegory, see my forthcoming work: Brent E. Parker, Christ Jesus, the True Israel: Progressive Covenantalism on Israel, Christ, and the Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2023), 15–79.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Brent Parker

    Brent Parker is assistant editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and the co-editor of Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (B&H, 2016) and also Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture (IVP, 2022). He also wrote Christ Jesus, the True Israel: Progressive Covenantalism on Israel, Christ, and the Church (Wipf & Stock, Fall 2023). He is married to Kandace and they have five children and live in Columbus, Indiana. They attend Christ Fellowship Church in Edinburgh, IN, where Brent serves as an occasional Sunday school teacher and preacher.

Brent Parker

Brent Parker

Brent Parker is assistant editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and the co-editor of Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (B&H, 2016) and also Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture (IVP, 2022). He also wrote Christ Jesus, the True Israel: Progressive Covenantalism on Israel, Christ, and the Church (Wipf & Stock, Fall 2023). He is married to Kandace and they have five children and live in Columbus, Indiana. They attend Christ Fellowship Church in Edinburgh, IN, where Brent serves as an occasional Sunday school teacher and preacher.