Typological Reading Versus Typological Writing (Part One)


Editor’s Note: Before reading this article, it would be beneficial to read Brent Parker’s “The Differences Between Typology and Allegory,” first. Parker mentions a previous iteration of this article.

By what authority does the Apostle Paul declare that Adam, the first man, “was a type of the one who was to come,” namely Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:14)? Did he have “privileged apostolic insight,” some form of “secret knowledge” that enabled him to assert a “radical reinterpretation” of Adam beyond the Old Testament accounts? Did Paul retrospectively recognize some “analogical pattern” of correspondence between Jesus and Adam? Did the apostle engage in “figural reading” or “typological interpretation” of the Old Testament? Are there markers in the Old Testament itself that warrant the apostle’s claim? Can we trace Paul’s reasoning so we can reproduce his explanation of Adam as an ancient type of Christ who came much later? What accounts for competing responses to these questions by biblical scholars? These and other questions are discussed in a personal backstory to these issues. In this article, my objective is to explain why “typological reading” is an awful strategy for reading one’s Bible.

A History of Confusion Concerning Biblical Types

Since ancient times, Christians have been divided over how to recognize and interpret Scripture’s types. Many Christians unknowingly stumble over—and even trample on—valid and substantial biblical types while they latch onto elusive and presumed threads that are little more than sensational distractions. One renowned imaginary type is the blood of Jesus Christ allegedly represented by Rahab’s “scarlet” cord (Josh. 2:18, 21; 6:22–23). Against this extravagant trend, Bishop Herbert Marsh (1757–1839) pushed hard in the opposite direction by arguing that the only types in the Bible are those so named by the New Testament, which are few. Thankfully, Patrick Fairbairn’s (1805–74) The Typology of Scripture presents correctives to both extremes, offering principles for recognizing typological foreshadows of things to come in Christ, all ordained by God, who embedded them within the Old Testament for our instruction. All would do well to ponder Fairbairn’s two-volume work on the Bible’s types, which features God’s revelation throughout the Old Testament as typological, foreshadowing fulfillment with the coming of Christ Jesus. Instead, now, preachers and teachers who write books on biblical typology largely ignore Fairbairn’s book, offering a mere nod relegated to a footnote. Thus, most contemporary discussions of biblical types focus on interpretation as typological, not revelation.

Confusion Concerning Typology: “Typological Interpretation”

The negative effects of Liberalism’s historical criticism of the Bible are apparent among some who insist that the Bible’s types are not prophetically foreshadowing. They contend, “A type is not a prediction; in itself it is simply a person, event, etc. recorded as historical fact, with no intrinsic reference to the future. Nor is an antitype the fulfillment of a prediction; it is rather the re-embodiment of a principle which has been previously exemplified in the type.”[1] Consequently, those who hold this view claim types have no predictive function but are discernible only retrospectively as analogical examples or patterns of later things.[2]

1. Richard T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament: His Application of Old Testament Passages to Himself and His Mission, (London: Tyndale Press, 1971; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 39–40.

2. David L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible: The Theological Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 183.

Today, most Evangelicals who comment on biblical types believe they have a prophetic function as prospective foreshadows of things to come now made clearer by their fulfillment. Richard Davidson led the way by defining typology as “a study of the Old Testament salvation historical realities or ‘types’ (persons, events, institutions) which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure, their intensified antitypical fulfillment aspects . . . in New Testament salvation history.”[3] Now, definitions of typology that view Old Testament types as prophetic dominate recent literature. However, an unfortunate confusion has arisen largely due to the influence of Leonhard Goppelt’s TYPOS: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament. The subtitle expresses his thesis, which leads readers to focus on the human act of interpretation instead of God’s acts of revelation. Goppelt reinforces this early in his book when he defines typology, characterizing it as “typological interpretation,” and again of things to be “interpreted typologically.”[4] Goppelt affirms, “typology is the method of interpreting Scripture that is predominant in the NT and characteristic of it.”[5]

3. Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical ΤΥΠΟΣ Structures, (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1981).

4. Leonard Goppelt, Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament, trans. Donald H. Madvig (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 17–18.

5. Ibid., 198 (emphasis original).

By following Goppelt, books on interpreting the Bible regularly categorize typology as a species of “Special Hermeneutics.”[6] This approach features the Bible interpreter identifying correspondences between persons, events, or things in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Thus, scholars identify their reading method as “typological interpretation” or “figural interpretation.” As I have argued elsewhere, those who adopt Goppelt’s approach unwittingly embrace a form of a “reader response theory” of interpretation.[7] By designating typology as a method of interpreting Scripture, they place biblical types within the domain of interpretation instead of within the realm of God’s written revelation where they actually are. The Apostle Paul makes this clear when he writes of events in Israel’s history: “Now these things took place as types for us lest we desire evil as they did. . . . Now these things occurred typologically to them, and they were written down for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). Paul leaves no doubt that biblical types are species of God’s written revelation; they are not correspondences in the Old Testament and New Testament that his brilliant mind locates. Biblical types are there in the Old Testament text not outside the text in the reading skills of an individual or a community.

6. For example, A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 236-64.

7. 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: Essay on Biblical Theology in Honor of Thomas R. Schreiner, eds. Denny Burk, James M. Hamilton, Jr., & Brian Vickers (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2019), 135-55.

Richard Hays, who prefers “figural reading” over “typological interpretation,” vividly expresses and promotes this fixation on the “reader’s reception” of the Old Testament as “reading backwards.”

Figural reading need not presume that the Old Testament authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective. (Another way to put this point is that figural reading is a form of intertextual interpretation that focuses on an intertextuality of reception rather than of production.)[8]

Indeed, the Bible warrants agreement that the Old Testament writers and the characters within the Old Testament drama of redemption who knew their God-appointed roles, events, places, and institutions were only earthly models or shadows of corresponding heavenly realities. Beyond their own eras, they did not fully understand all that their roles foreshadowed. The Apostle Peter makes this clear concerning the prophets and their roles within Israel’s drama.

8. Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Four Gospel Witness (Waco: TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), 2.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Pet. 1:10–12).

Thankfully, Hays is inconsistent. Despite calling his “reading backwards” approach figural reading, when he expounds the biblical text, he vacillates. Though he claims there is a major difference between “prediction and prefiguration,” he rightly affirms that the New Testament Gospels “declare that the Torah and the Prophets and the Psalms mysteriously prefigure Jesus.”[9] Again, Hays reasons, “The Gospels teach us to read the OT for figuration.”[10] Do you recognize how these claims conflict with Hays’s talk of figural reading and reading backwards? If prefiguration already exists in the Old Testament—and it does—it is there by way of the Old Testament writers’ hands, not by the reader’s perceptive eyes. Hays affirms as much by stating that the Old Testament text “becomes the vehicle for latent figural meanings unsuspected by the original author and readers. It points forward typologically to the gospel story.”[11]

9. Ibid., 3 (emphasis added).

10. Ibid., 15.

11. Ibid., (emphasis added).

Indeed, as the Apostle Peter indicates, the Old Testament writers often wrote things that reached beyond their own apprehension. Thus, it is unwarranted, misdirecting, and potentially detrimental when many evangelicals characterize the New Testament writers’ and our reading of the biblical text as “figural reading” or as “typological interpretation.” For example, many have embraced a position reminiscent of George Ladd’s talk of “radical reinterpretation.” Initially, Peter Leithart’s claim, “Typology is deliberate foreshadowing,” seems to imply that the Old Testament types are predictive. However, he continues, “and the change of meaning from expectation to conclusion is the change from promise to fulfillment. The original text changes meaning when brought into relation to other texts.”[12] Leithart illustrates how the Old Testament text “changes meaning” with the ram caught in the thicket substituting as the sacrifice for Isaac (Gen. 22). “Once Jesus rises from the dead . . . that earlier event becomes something more specific. It becomes a promise of Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, a type and a foreshadowing of the great deliverance of Golgotha, the final sacrifice.”[13] Under what theory is it plausible to claim that an event in the New Testament can transform an earlier Old Testament event into a foreshadow of an event of the last days? Surely, the later event does not change the meaning of the earlier event. Instead, the earlier event, as a type, foreshadows the later event, which brings to completeness and expounds what the earlier one anticipated.

12. Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 64 (emphasis added).

13. Ibid., 44 (emphasis added).

In this article, I have addressed the problem of locating typology in the reader’s realm of interpretation and not in the text of Scripture itself. In Part Two, I will address the solution to this problem.



  • Ardel Caneday

    Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.