The narrow Newspeak of modern theology is a failure in transmission, but the solution lies ahead of us, not behind. Our trite systematics were a reaction against allegorical abuse of the divine texts, and thus a genuine effort to nail down the truth. However, the truth is always a story. It is alive, it grows, and it functions in time and space, so the theologian must learn to deal not merely in propositions but with propositions in process. Once process is taken into account, the text calls us beyond rudimentary methodologies, old and new, to a superior level of analysis, one that is more biblically informed.
Now, the assertion here is not that Everything You Know Is Wrong. Systematic typology is not an outright rejection of the hermeneutical theories and practices of the past:
Along with scientific method and artistic intuition, systematic typology, as a Grand Unified Theory, a single polyphonic technique, tempers, harmonizes, incorporates and transcends all of these strategies to explain, with much success, many of the eccentricities in our beloved Book. How can this be? These theories, varying in intent and value, failed to understand that the inspired texts are an “isometric projection,” a method used by engineers to visually represent three-dimensional objects in two-dimensional form. They were all attempts to describe, from different angles, the splendor of a “body” that was ultimately out of their league.
Imagine a two dimensional world visited by a three dimensional object. If this thing were an apple, the people of the “plane” would only be able to comprehend the fruit in “slices,” or cross-sections, as it passed through their single-level domain. This sort of limited comprehension has become high-tech in the anatomical studies of academia, where linguistic lasers cut the Bible’s textual cadaver into ever thinner slices. But like the human body, the Scriptures constitute an architecture.
The Bible has a shape. It is a “pop-up” book, which means that its diverse parts only make sense in three dimensions. Much like the images recorded in those dazzling autostereograms, once your optic chiasma is trained in the practice, what was once imperceptible becomes obvious. Instead of a systematics which records the frequency of colored dots, a systematic typology allows us to explore a sacred landscape. The bewildering oddities, vestigial artifacts and apparent redundancies that stump systematic theology are figments of its failure to truly open the book.
The practice of reading in three dimensions sounds like a formidable task, but every sequence is a play on the original algorithm. Since the language of the Bible is visual-musical-architectural, it gradually develops and employs a consistent vocabulary of symbols. These image-words are all presented in carefully ordered sequences which share a common architecture, one which we must internalize through repeated exposure to the text, like practicing musical scales. The “textual conversation” rightly identified by some theologians is thus not limited to links between repeated words, similar phrases or corresponding symbols but also exists in reprisals of a literary “shape.” Each recurrence is to some degree a fantasia on the archetypal pattern, so a sensitivity to word and image must be coupled with a sensitivity to repeated structure.
Many of those who regularly hear the Scriptures being read out loud have already absorbed, to some degree, the fundamental structure at a subconscious level. But the identification of this pattern in its less obvious iterations also requires an accumulated memory of which images have appeared where in previous passages. Like all languages, the language of symbol is extremely flexible but not infinitely so. It is the repeated structure which describes the types, revealing the boundaries of the author’s intention. Thus, through a sensitive, cumulative reading, the text itself is allowed to construct the hermeneutic in the reader. What “makes something (or someone) tick” is usually a principle hidden beneath the surface, perceived only through careful and repeated observation of the various ways in which this principle is expressed. Such consideration is the formula for good science, good conversation, and a good marriage. Reading the Bible becomes a dance. This method is demonstrably robust and wonderfully elegant simply because it reflects, or is shaped by, the virtues of the text. It is not an imposition upon it but a response to it.
So, the assertion here is that the interpretive guidelines we sought for centuries were encoded in the very arrangement of the text, visible to us all along but hidden in plain sight. This consistent structural “stamp” is a genetic key which not only helps us to interpret what is inside the text but what is outside of it.
Internally, the meaning of each symbol is discerned not only through identifying the visual relationship with its referent, but also by the “spin” put upon it through its placement in a constant literary-architectural grid. A chair at a desk has a different meaning from a chair on a podium or a chair under a harsh lamp in a dark cell, yet it remains a chair in all cases. Thus, in any given sequence, every Bible symbol possesses textual “coordinates.” We might say that the X value describes where the item is in the chiastic sequence, and the Y describes the value of the symbol itself, the what. Since we are trinitarians, we can appreciate that it is a relationship which enables us to identify the full meaning of a word, phrase or object in any biblical text.
For example, once it is understood that Genesis 2 is a “human” recapitulation of Genesis 1, not only does its puzzling structure suddenly make perfect sense, we can observe that the mountain of God from which four rivers flow is a microcosm of the dry land which rose from the waters in Genesis 1. These not only possess a visual similarity, but each appears at the same step in its respective heptamerous sequence. The conclusion we are supposed to draw from this particular architectural arrangement is that since God is setting up a priestly microcosm of the world, the man’s ministry is to represent the entire Creation before Him. Logically, the act which corrupted the sanctuary, as liturgical “image,” eventually led to the submersion of the world. This becomes background for Jesus’ allusion to the days of Noah in his prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Paul’s reference to a Man, an Adam, sitting enthroned as a god in the Sanctuary.
This assignment of position to symbols within a book, pericope or stanza allows the author not only to comment upon or allude to something without saying a word, but also to make some deeply ironic jokes which are undetectable in a flat reading. In some cases the joke consists in the fact that a particular step in the pattern is missing. For instance, where the author wishes to correlate the sin of a priest or king with the failure of Adam to enter into God’s Sabbath, the seventh line of a stanza, or the seventh stanza of a pericope will be missing. Musicians and comedians know that the confounding of expectations is only effective – or humorous – if we actually have those expectations. As readers of the Bible, if we truly desire to understand it, we must develop those expectations by learning the vital “pulses” of biblical language.
Externally, through homologous structure, every literary unit is enabled to speak to, comment on, and enlighten, every other because, at heart, it bears the same “image.” This might be considered as the Z value, the depth of the literary topography. Each isolated text images the primary theme and is thus as deep as the entire revelation. The full meaning of any given pericope can only be ascertained through meditation and comparison with other sacred texts of a similar shape. For instance, since the testing of Adam in the Garden follows the same pattern as Covenant history, the parallel structure enables us to correspond the prohibition upon the Tree of Knowledge with the prohibitions upon certain foods under Levitical law. Through comparison, both can be identified as a temporary, priestly humbling of God’s legal representatives, a preparation and qualification for godly kingdom.
These precise correspondences, verifiable via a disciplined literary homology, also seem to explain what is referred to as “the apostolic hermeneutic,” the Apostles’ apparently slapdash habit of quoting seemingly unrelated Old Testament texts in support of contemporary “fulfillments.” A sensitivity to “Covenant-literary” structure reveals that the New Testament authors were simply pointing out foreshadowings of Christ in previous historical events, points which they could easily relate to their own day since they occurred at similar stages in the recursive sequences. The shape of Jesus’ ministry was dictated by patterns, sequences and processes established in the Law and extrapolated in the Prophets.
I. A. Richards, an English literary critic and rhetorician, said, “The two most complex processes on this planet are the mathematics of a string quartet and the translation of a Chinese philosophic sentence.” Providentially, the Bible’s literary harmonies survive careful translation mostly unscathed because they are not metrical but helical, a rhythmic spiral of images or concepts. The repeated structures are not aesthetic containers for rambling ideas but storage devices consisting of sequenced descriptors, recapitulations of chains of events in earlier texts. Failure to identify the sequence itself as a type, the impression of a familiar pattern in fresh material, can in some cases render the text almost as meaningless as a stray string of binary code. Without perceiving the cunning of the artisan and his network of chains (Exodus 28:14-15; 1 Kings 7:14), we are deaf to much of the author’s intent, blind to the allusion, and the passage loses its prophetic punch.
It is at this point in our study that the mercurial Morpheus beckons you to choose between two pills, red and blue, and some readers will consider this a bridge too far. If you are finding all of this to be a bit of a stretch, I refer you to George Steiner who said, “You must always pitch above the head of your student until his fingers ache with reaching.” Our God is an artist and an engineer, and I believe systematic typology is the next pitch in this particular field, the next paradigm shift. I am certain there will be other discoveries in the future, but they will complement or refine rather than discredit or replace our understanding of this “genetic” structure of the Bible.
Mike Bull is a graphic designer in the Blue Mountains of Australia, and author, most recently, of Inquiétude.
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