The Westminster Confession says that each passage has one meaning, not many, and that gets picked up on by lots of people who are suspicious of and do not like typological readings of Scripture. I will defer to wiser and more learned heads than mine as to exactly what that means (it does seem clearly aimed at the Medieval Four Fold Interpretation), but what I can say is something about how a number of the authors of that Confession, and those close to them actually did practice real, Biblical interpretation.
Have these opponents of typology ever read the Puritans? I often wonder. What I can say, is I have actually read the Puritans. Thousands and thousands of pages of them in a very leisurely manner. I spent a good ten years doing little else. Have they never read Manton, Goodwin, Owen, Howe, Flavel and, most accessible of all, Matthew Henry? Amongst these are the actual authors of the Westminster Confession, and those who were not, were very close to the authors (Owen and Goodwin being “the Atlases of Independency” were at the Assembly, listened to, and more respected than anybody; Manton was there; etc. etc.) In these authors, typology is everywhere.
Before I knew better, or knew I was supposed to know better, I read and absorbed much of their typological interpretation, and I loved it. It turned my crank. It was interesting, fascinating. It was only later that I found people like B.B. Warfield and Joseph Addison Alexander, the great 19th century Princetonians who followed the Puritans. By the time we get to these men, typology is largely gone. They spent much of their lives trying to answer the “scientific” interpretation and exegesis of the German higher critics. Warfield is matchless in many ways. His defense of biblical authority is priceless. But when I read their pure exegesis, in some ways it lives on the same plane as the Germans.
I had a friend who quipped to me once that he was in no danger of ever being influenced by higher skeptical criticism. He said, “I would go to sleep first.” It is dry as dust. And while there is no doubt that there is much of enormous value in, say, Alexander on Isaiah, it is all written against the backdrop of defending the authenticity of the text against the great German critics. It actually mirrors the Germans in tone and ambiance, understandable for what they had to do in their time. But, to put it one way, they essentially write like very conservative Germans would write. Alexander on Isaiah put me to sleep. All of these men are writing under the Damocles Sword of Kant, that great killer of all that is interesting and alive. They became (more or less) literalists. Kant was the killer of all that was symbolic. The 20th century neo-Kantians, like Cassirer in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, had to labor to bring it alive again. But pray tell, just what could a Kantian phenomenal world symbolize? The noumenal realm is completely unknowable, and nothing in the world can possibly symbolize anything in the transcendent realm. Princeton mimicked the enemy in fighting the enemy. It was really the Inkling Circle in the 20th Century (Lewis, Barfield, Tolkien, etc.) who fought back with Lewis saying explicitly that one does not choose between the literal and symbolic. A thing can be and is both at once. In Reformed circles, it was Van Til who finally gave the weaponry necessary to fend off Kant and what he does to texts.
This is exactly what liberals are still stumbling over. A theologian like Marcus Borg says that some material in the Gospels is actually historical (he grants more than most of his predecessors), but he still denies most of the miraculous as “literal,” including the resurrection. The story of Jesus turning water into wine comes from the later church, which creates a “metaphor” that tells a story about the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. So, for Borg, maybe (and with modern Darwinism, even this is questionable) “only God can make a tree,” but apparently, only the Kantianized modern brain can make a metaphor or a symbol. He still says, literal or symbolic. Apparently God lacks the wit and sophistication to also make a metaphor after He has made a tree. That requires theologians who have studied with the Germans.
Ironically, the really hardcore Fundamentalists were the people who actually did both literal and typological interpretation (witness someone like E. W. Bullinger with his The Companion Bible). They were the great defenders of “literal whenever possible” and then ironically did typology on almost all passages at the same time. Reformed interpreters mostly abandoned the field, readings of prophesy being honorably excepted.
Again ironically, I am not sure Princeton was ever so sophisticated. They were afraid of types and symbols, and wanted to be respectable to the Germans.
Give me Matthew Henry, Goodwin, Owen, Manton. They were before Kant and unencumbered.
That however, was still in the age of space, so I am sure they accomplished what they needed to. But now, we are (as the great Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy said) in the age of time. We must have types, symbols, and the literal. What do I mean by that?
The Bible is a four dimensional book. All other books from the ancient world are flat by comparison. The fourth dimension is time. Typology is what deals with that fourth dimension; it deals with time. One can trace a symbolic theme through the whole Bible, that is through time.
So, for example: The rainbow first appears after the flood. Then it later shows up repeatedly with God’s “Rainbow People” (the Hebrews, the Jews). The High Priest enters the Holy of Holies (which is filled with Light, because He is Light) wearing his breastplate, which has twelve precious stones symbolizing for the twelve tribes of Israel. When the Light passes through the breastplate, it makes what? It creates rainbows! God does not destroy the world after Israel comes into existence, because when God looks down, He sees Israel down there, and He sees rainbows. That is what happens when the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place on Yom Kippur. But whenever Israel camped in the wilderness they camped around the Tabernacle (which was a kind of Lighthouse), which was in the middle with four tribes on each side. The gems on the High Priest’s breastplate are symbolic of those tribes. What God could always see was His light passing through all of the tribes and thus creating a panoply of rainbows. The same was true in the time of the Temple, with relevant changes in geography.
Then the Church becomes the Rainbow people. The pure white light of God’s wisdom passes through the Church, and it makes rainbows visible to the Principalities and the Powers. The church is a “prism.” That is the “manifold” in Eph. 3:10 (NKJV). The church is a rainbow maker, and hence, God remembers and continues not to destroy the world.
Then, we find the rainbow is around God’s throne (Rev 4:3). That is the church around God’s throne, and again, God holds off his wrath toward the world, and is at peace with His people. Finally, the New Jerusalem has a wall made of precious stone that is all translucent. He is the Light within the City. Hence, His light passes through the walls of the City and makes rainbows that would be visible from above or from outer space. This is the Church present, and the Church in eschatological fulfillment.
That is just an illustration. Types deal with time. This is a very big reality. As C. H. Cochrane says
in Christianity and Classical Culture, “A thousand years of classical thought could not deal or cope with time.” That incapacity is the final explanation for the collapse of Rome. (He is wrong: the book of Daniel explains that God was done with the Classical world since the Great King had come—but Cochrane gets the mechanics of it quite right). The Classical world could not cope with time, and St. Augustine could. Hence, the Christians won. The Bible deals with time as God’s creature, and typology is the map of time.
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy says that the last 500 years (beginning about 1400 or maybe 1500) was the
great epic of dealing with space. It was the time of global exploration, and science has been particularly concerned with space. Systematic Theology is more or less (not completely) a spatial construct. It is not primarily a temporal construct. It is valuable, but not the only perspective. We have now conquered space. Biblical Theology is a temporal construct, and it deals with time by means of symbols and types.
When one can communicate globally in an instant way (as with any internet web site or talk list), then space has been conquered. It is no longer a great adventure. I can get on an airplane and land anywhere in Africa in a little more than a day. It used to take several months, and I very likely would die before I arrived. That adventure of space has been fulfilled.
Rosenstock-Huessy says that the next 500 years will be about conquering time. The Bible with
Jesus Christ at the center is the map. What makes the temporal map readable is typology.
Rev. Richard Bledsoe is a chaplain at Boulder Community Hospital, Boulder, Colorado.