A Musical Case for Typological Realism, 3

Thinking about time in terms of music also helps us to appreciate its unity and inner relations. Henri Bergson observes our cultural habit of dividing time into discrete moments, and conceiving of these as if akin to objects in a spatial succession.[1] Against such a notion, Bergson argues for the significance of time as duration, illustrating his point with a reference to music:

“Could we not say that, if these notes succeed one another, we still perceive them as if they were inside one another and their ensemble were like a living being whose parts, though distinct, interpenetrate through the very effect of their solidarity? The proof is that we break the rhythm by holding one note of the melody too long. It is not its exaggerated length as such that will avert us to our mistake, but rather the qualitative change brought to the musical phrase as a whole. One could thus conceive succession without distinction as a musical penetration, a solidarity, an intimate organization of elements of which each would be representative of the whole, indistinguishable from it, and would not isolate itself from the whole except for abstract thought.”[2]

It is essential to the character of the melody that its notes are not all played simultaneously.[3] Its identity as a coherent temporal object depends upon the separation of its notes from each other and its extension in time, no less than our perception of a tree depends upon its extension in space, so that its component parts are not compressed into a single point of concentrated being. The melody is experienced as coherent and unified.

In explaining Merleau-Ponty’s account of time, Komarine Romdenh-Romluc compares our experience of temporal objects such as a melody to our perception of three-dimensional objects.[4] We always perceive three dimensional objects from a particular perspective, never from all perspectives simultaneously. From any given location, aspects and parts of the three-dimensional objects that we perceive will be hidden from us. However, we do not only perceive “a collection of flat, two-dimensional surfaces,” but spatially extended objects.

Romdenh-Romluc writes: “It follows that their experiences must present them with the parts of things that are hidden from their gaze. The horizons of perception present them with the hidden parts of things, but they do so implicitly. Thus, when I look down on the table, I explicitly perceive the table top, whilst implicitly perceiving the legs, the surface underneath the table, the ground beneath it, and so on. The horizons present what is currently absent from the subject’s gaze. The fact that this is presented implicitly allows the subject to experience it as currently absent.”[5]

Our perception of time is similar in character. Like the “horizons” of our spatial experience, our temporal experience has “retentions” and “protentions”—“retentions of previous experiences” and “anticipations of future experiences”—as integral dimensions of the structure of present experience.[6] These are not the same as what we generally think of as memories or anticipations, which involve acts of recall or projection. Rather, retentions and protentions are perceptions of the absence of the past and future in the present, much as our perception of the table leg that is hidden from our vision. Our protentions and retentions are implicit presentations of what has been experienced and what will be experienced—it is to this that Zuckerkandl refers when speaking about the fact that in listening to music we are always “between the tones.” The future and the past, though absent from this present moment, are also “present” through their traces, our protentions and retentions.

Music and Typology

The unity and the interwoven and overlapping temporalities of time conceived musically challenge many of our culturally prevailing ways of understanding time, and also open up new possibilities to us. When we cease thinking of time purely in quantitative terms and as successive discrete moments, our sense of connection between events in time can become considerably stronger.

Such a change in our conceptualization of time can greatly deepen our appreciation of biblical typology, for it is in typology that the musicality of divine revelation comes to the fore. Here the metaphor of music also has advantages over popular literary metaphors (e.g. script and drama), for which time is a less profoundly constitutive dimension.

In typology, we encounter time in a pronounced form, time that exhibits a musical quality, with many intra-temporal and inter-temporal relations and modes of succession. The time of God’s historical action is a rich, full, and orchestrated time, not the mere quantifiable moments of a hollow time marked out by the ticking of the clock.

The manner in which we conceive of typology is a matter with far-reaching effects. Our contemporary understanding of time invites us to think of typology in a spatializing manner. For one such understanding, typology involves holding up two events next to each other—a foreshadowing type and a fulfilling antitype—and observing the parallels and the contrasts, largely abstracting them from the medium of time, save for their relative order in the succession of events in the scriptural witness. This approach is not without a measure of truth: the full and decisive statement of typological motifs in Christ does establish a pattern of promise and fulfilment—of type and antitype—with lesser statements of those same motifs.

However, such juxtapositions of types and antitypes can establish an unhelpful binary division within Scripture, an opposition between “shadow” and “reality,” the former frequently conceived of as a bare sign pointing away from itself and lacking a true part in the latter. This opposition also tends to have the effect of depreciating the Old Testament witness, denying Israel genuine participation in the spiritual reality, and dulling our sense of the typological relations that exist within the two testaments, rather than solely between them.[7]

An alternative approach, popular in the context of some biblical scholarship, relates events together in terms of their exhibition of synchronic literary kinship as “type-scenes,” for instance. There is, of course, much to be gained from such an approach. Thinking in terms of type-scenes is a powerful means of attuning ourselves to both the salient commonalities and differences between events that reveal their significance. Nevertheless, one of the weaknesses of such an approach can be seen in its frequent abstraction of events from time in order to hold them alongside each other for literary comparison. Like a musical motif, however, biblical typology needs to be understood diachronically—in terms of its development over time—as themes and patterns emerge, are expanded, reshaped, inverted, escalated, and brought to full and mature expression. Overreliance on synchronic literary analysis can blind us to this.

Music’s revelation of time’s potential to be a realm of unity and coherence affords us new ways of conceiving typology. Rather than abstracting typology from time or opposing type to some antitypical reality, typology can be understood in terms of God’s rich orchestration of covenant history and his developing witness to it. The process of revelation takes time, because it is musical in character, because time is integral to its manner of meaning-making (synchronic type-antitype models of typology raise the question of why the advent of the reality had to tarry so long for supposedly hollow signs). The meaning that is made through revelation is to be understood typologically or figurally, as we follow the unfolding development of the movements of God’s great redemptive symphony.

Finally, just as a piece of music can manifest both unity and coherence over time, so God’s revelation is unified historically. Biblical typology is more than the study of ancient literary art, or of ways in which Israel’s history, persons, and institutions can signify something else beyond and apart from themselves. It is attention to the beauty and order of the flow of God’s composition of history, to the movement from the gentlest intimations of promise to the most deafening chords of fulfilment, from the first rising of tension to the decisive moments of resolution. It involves a sense of a musical unity of promise and fulfilment that undermines any sharp opposition between type and antitype.

The “reality” is present and active throughout: at first in an understated, concealed, and chiefly anticipatory manner, but later powerfully and openly. Israel’s history, for instance, bears incarnational meaning: Israel is, as it were, the symbolic and societal womb in which, over hundreds of years of divine revelation and moulding, the Messiah is formed, until he emerges to do his decisive work.

Typological Realism and Participation

The understanding I have delineated here could be termed “typological realism.” Typological realism is the claim that typology is neither mere literary art, nor mere redemptive historical signpost, but a revelation of the actual unity, proximity, and interrelatedness of temporal realities that may appear far removed when regarded solely from time’s quantitative aspect.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor discusses the manner in which our form of time-consciousness shifted in modernity.[8] Premodern time, Taylor claims, was not just the steady ticking of an impersonal clock—the “homogeneous, empty time” of modernity. Taylor remarks upon the way in which “higher times” could “gather, assemble, reorder, and punctuate” ordinary time. He observes that “events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked,” presenting the ‘prefiguring-fulfilling’ relation in which Old and New Testament events were placed as an example of this higher time.

He writes: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summer’s day 1997. Once events are situated in relation to more than one kind of time, the issue of time-placing becomes quite transformed.”[9]

The effect of the loss of such time-consciousness upon a faith that has once had a form of typological realism at its heart is immense. The decay of a sense of the permeability of events and persons to each other—through the medium of time—will make it difficult for us to grasp the typology inherent in the Scripture and the sacraments.

Bergson and Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of duration and coherence through time offer us a way to resist regarding typology as only formal analogies between discrete events, persons, or objects in time, a conclusion to which our spatialization of time tempts us. Instead, we are trained to perceive a living unity through it.

It is noteworthy that Bergson turns to participatory language in the context of his musical analogy. The notes are “as if they were inside one another and their ensemble were like a living being whose parts, though distinct, interpenetrate through the very effect of their solidarity.”[10] We could “conceive succession without distinction as a musical penetration, a solidarity, an intimate organization of elements of which each would be representative of the whole, indistinguishable from it, and would not isolate itself from the whole except for abstract thought.”[11] The language that Bergson employs here is revealing, as it captures the profoundly participatory character of the present when time is so conceived.

Recovering such an understanding of time is an important step on the road to recovering a scriptural understanding of typological realism. The past and the future are not realms of discrete moments sealed off from the present, but horizons of our present experience. While the past may be explicitly absent, it exercises a profoundly powerful implicit presence. Our present is shot through with the traces of the absent past. The literary form of typology, with its echoes, allusions, motifs, and patterns, its subtle yet potent textual dance of presence and absence, is a very natural medium for conveying the character of temporal relations, with which it is remarkably homologous.

In moving to this understanding of time, one which is apt for participation, we open up the possibility of presenting the primary participatory relations envisaged in the Christian faith in a more temporal manner. In many respects our participation in Christ might be better understood within a more temporal framework. Christ is the forerunner, the pioneer, the one who has been perfected, the Man who has attained to humanity’s full and mature stature, the firstfruits of the resurrection, the firstborn from the dead, the one who leads the way into God’s future. His achievement, as a once-for-all act in the past, comes to us from the past, yet also draws us into his future.

Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.


[1] Suzanne Guerlac, Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 62.

[2] Cited in Thinking in Time, 66

[3] Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Merleau-Ponty and Phenomenology of Perception (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011), 230.

[4] Guidebook to Merleau-Ponty, 229-233, 247-248

[5] Guidebook to Merleau-Ponty, 229

[6] Guidebook to Merleau-Ponty, 232

[7] Noah as a new Adam, Israel as undergoing the experience of Moses, Elisha as a new Joshua, Peter and Paul as persons whose experience follows the pattern of Christ’s, etc., etc.

[8] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 54.

[9] A Secular Age, 54

[10] Cited in Thinking in Time, 66

[11] Thinking in Time, 66A