Typology, Biblical Theology, and Theological Interpretation of Scripture

I want to use the topic of Typology to propose a way of thinking about the relationship between Biblical Theology (BT) and Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS). The prompt for this is an excellent review by Nicholas J. Moore of Richard Ounsworth’s book, Joshua Typology in the New Testament

Moore writes:

Ounsworth’s attention focusses briefly on Jude 5 and thereafter on Hebrews. He is careful neither to claim an explicit Joshua typology in either text, nor to posit an authorially-intended typology; rather, his concern is with what a plausible first-century audience might have been able to infer. Explicit Joshua typologies in Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Aphraates, Ephrem the Syrian, and Origen demonstrate the early development of this thought. The latter three could possibly have been prompted by Hebrews 3–4 given their inclusion of a comparison with Moses (cf. Heb 3.1–6), though this strikes me as too much of a commonplace in any conception of Joshua to be evidence of Hebrews’ influence.

Note that Moore seems to approve of the fact that Ounsworth does not “posit an authorially-intended typology.” Then consider the texts he cites that Ounsworth uses to show that a first-century audience would plausibly have been familiar with Joshua typology: Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Aphraates, Ephrem the Syrian, and Origen. These all come after Hebrews, and Barnabas was profoundly influenced by Hebrews (as, most likely, were the others). I wonder where those guys got the idea?

Is it not just as plausible that they learned it from Hebrews, and that the author of Hebrews intended it?

This point about authorial intent is what I’m proposing to be the difference between BT and TIS. To draw it out, a bit more from Moore. He writes in the next paragraph of his review:

The discussion of typology is particularly instructive, and by Ounsworth’s own admission ‘perhaps controversial’ (19). Following Frances Young, he seeks to allow a definition to emerge from NT instances of the τύπος word-group. He notes the polyvalence of this vocabulary, which can refer both to that which is formed by something, and to that which forms something else; a τύπος can thus be a ‘mediating mould’ (37), as for example a cast formed from a statue can in turn be used to make further statues. A survey of NT occurrences (Rom 5; 1 Cor 10; Acts 7; 1 Pet 3; Heb 8–9) identifies several key aspects: correspondences between historical events, personalities, institutions, etc. which are providentially created and may themselves be formative of further correspondences. Such a definition reveals the distinctive flavour of this formulation: the crucial ingredient is ‘an emphasis on divine causation or providence’ (51); typology is thus an ontological rather than a purely literary phenomenon (contra Young). The NT texts assume both the reality of the type and its divine causation in order to foreshadow the antitype: ‘the literal meaning [of the original event] is neither replaced nor effaced but extended’ (52). To be sure, such an event must be ‘inscriptured’ for the correspondences to be available and exploited, so there remains an inexcisable literary aspect to typology. Yet in laying stress on the fundamental importance of perception of divine providence behind historical events, Ounsworth’s account seems to me to be closer to the outlook of the NT.

What I want to highlight from this paragraph is the emphasis on the types being “providentially created,” and the statement that “typology is thus an ontological rather than a purely literary phenomenon.”

I take this to mean that God intended the type, and thus it was inscripturated. It seems from the lack of authorial intent that something like sensus plenior must be at work, where the human author spoke better than he knew. I submit that this way of thinking about typology comes at it from the TIS end of the spectrum. Something theologically significant is happening in the text, and the interpreter feels no compulsion to show that the human author intended it. Appeals to the divine author seem to suffice for TIS.

I have no intention of disparaging TIS or being unfair to it, nor am I trying to prescribe definitions. My intent is to seek clarity on the way these labels are being used, and to foster conversation on these issues.

The sticking point for me about this kind of reading is what Moore means when he writes, “The NT texts assume both the reality of the type and its divine causation in order to foreshadow the antitype.” Who is doing the assuming here? Coming from the perspective of BT, I would argue that the human author of the text intended to communicate the installation in the typological pattern to his readers. If we are not bothering with the intent of the human author, to whose assumption does the phrase “the NT texts assume” refer? The divine author?

One last comment. The final sentence quoted above closes with the words, “Ounsworth’s account seems to me to be closer to the outlook of the NT.” Again, to whose outlook does this refer if not the human authors of the NT?

In What Is Biblical Theology? I argue that biblical theology is the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. It seems that Moore is using this very criterion to evaluate the success of Ounsworth’s proposal, but he wants to use it without reference to authorial intent. Authorial intent may be out of fashion, but I contend that without it we lack meaningful standards by which to demonstrate or disprove interpretations. Appeals to what the divine author intended seem to be more open to operating at theological levels that hover above the text rather than being embedded in the words that communicate the intentions of the human authors.

What do you think? Is the distinction between appeal to human and divine authors a good way to describe the difference between BT and TIS? Am I missing something about whose assumptions and outlook are in view in the phrases “the NT texts assume” and “the outlook of the NT”?

PS: anyone concerned about supercessionism or replacement theology should read to the second to last paragraph of the review.

PPS: The intrepid Sam Emadi has shared with me his review of Ounsworth’s volume, which confirms my reaction to the avoidance of authorial intent. Watch for the review in the next issue of JETS.

Join the Conversation


  1. Jim,

    Doesn’t 1 Peter 1:10-12 open the door for a divine intention to be viewed as a parallel, if not superior reading to an authorial intention? If the prophets had to search and inquire carefully about the very things they were writing, because the Spirit was giving indications about things which the prophets themselves could not have intended, then the door to multiple intentions would seem to be wide open.

    (1Pe 1:10-12 ESV) 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.

    At the very least, it would seem that a discussion on the relationship between indications and intentions is needed. Not sure this fits here, but we could also include the NT prophets who were used by the Spirit to indicate that Paul was to be bound in Jerusalem, even though they intended to restrain Paul’s actions by such communications.

    1. I think 1 Pet 1:10–12 supports the idea that the human prophets were trying to figure things out, and Peter seems to indicate that they knew a Christ was coming, that they knew he would suffer, and that they knew after suffering there would be glory. They’re trying to work it out, but they seem to have understood a good bit. . .

      1. If that’s all you are saying, then I think I agree. I’m much more comfortable with seeing the NT’s use of the OT as the fruition of the OT then as a hard right turn. I really appreciate how Beale and Hafemann have shown over and over again, that the NT’s use of the OT is not only in line with the OT’s intention, but that many OT texts are shown to be much clearer when we realize that the OT authors new what they were talking about and it’s only we the interpreters who have blind spots or are hard of hearing.

        I just wanted to make sure that there was room for the Spirit to give indications beyond what the prophets themselves could fully grasp.

  2. Jim,

    I think since Holy Scripture is at once something written 100% by God and 100% by human authors, we simply have to deal with the text as it stands. Asking whether or not the human author intended this or that type may be the wrong question of Scripture, as if understanding the literal sense must be either/or.

    The problem is that such a question seems to presuppose a competitive relationship between the divine and human authors. This works itself out in at least two extremes: (a) confining what God is communicating through Scripture within the historical-grammatical ‘human intention’ or (b) making an intuited ‘divine intention’ somehow contradict the literal meaning of the text as it stands. The whole point is to avoid thinking we can discern when Paul stops speaking and God starts, for example, because no such thing ever happens. Medievals knew too well that ‘allegory’ comprehended what you’re aiming for with typology without restricting it to the conscious intention of the prophets and apostles.

    What do you think? I suspect the whole question, whether ‘BT’ or ‘TIS’ (whatever those mean) is right, sets us off on the wrong foot.

  3. Thanks for reminding us of this. I see tons more theological interpretation of scripture than I do biblical theology these days.

  4. Dr. Hamilton,

    Great set of questions here. I am appealing to Ounsworth in my dissertation so naturally what you have here is very important to me. Now, my disclaimer is that I did not read all of Ounsworth, I read the first 60 pages or so as I was especially focusing on Ounsworth’s understanding of typology.

    Firstly, based on what I read, and assuming I’m reading Ounsworth correctly, I would not put him in the TIS camp. He clearly distinguishes typology from allegory and so it does not seem he would affirm “figural reading” as TIS advocates do (see p. 52).

    Furthermore, Ounsworth rightly affirms that typology appeals to Scripture “as a record, and therefore retains and relies upon the literal sense of scripture . . . . [T]he role of the literary record is not to encode the theological meaning but to reveal to the reader (or hearer) the mimetic correspondences that exist in reality” (p. 52). The connection between two persons or events as mimetic correspondences is not established by the “creative act on the part of the interpreter so much as a discovery, a discernment of what intended (sc. by God) to be understood” (p. 53).

    I agree that I am concerned with Ounsworth’s comments on the authorial intention of Hebrews (p. 27) opting instead to focus on the audience, but with the comments I have cited above, Ounsworth seems to be saying that interpreters don’t fashion or create typological connections, one has to discern whether it is really there by the will of God (divine design). At least at this point, I think he is saying something similar to Ardel Caneday (see also p. 6). I mean, his criteria (p. 53) is that typological correspondences are discerned by their inscripturation “with sufficient clarity for the spiritual reader to uncover them” and it would seem one would have to establish a typological pattern “by the providential nature of these correspondences – by God’s power salvation history and its narration in Scripture are moulded in order to offer images of his eternal plan of salvation” (p. 53). He agrees with Eichrodt that OT events can function as types because they are historically factual and accurately recorded as part of written history (p. 52). Therefore, I see a lot of overlap with Ounsworth proposal for typology with the more traditional, evangelical-Protestant approach even as I have difficulty understanding how he relates vertical and horizontal typological patterns.

    Now I don’t know where he goes specifically in the rest of his book in terms of establishing Joshua as a type, but I thought I would add those comments above bc I don’t currently see him in the TIS camp . . . at least on the issue of typology.

    I would definitely affirm your comments about human and divine authorship. For evangelicals who take seriously that God speaks through human authors (the concursive theory of inspiration) we can only know the divine authorial intent by knowing the human author’s intent (historical-grammatical-literary-canonical approach). Of course as revelation progresses we have development as later human authors build on earlier authors (intertextuality; sweep of redemptive history). But the human and divine authorial intent cannot be separated. Sadly I see this with TIS as they seem to appeal to the quadriga or figural reading where the human authorial intent is lost while appeal is made to the divine author.

    You ask the question about whether the appeal to human and divine authors is a good way to describe the difference between BT and TIS. I think it is helpful to think about this as again we want our hermeneutic to flow out of our doctrine of inspiration (concursive activity), but I think the issue is still how many senses of Scripture are there? Will we stick with the reformers and argue that there is the sensus literalis – only one sense – or will we go with the quadriga or multiple senses as with the Patristics? Here I am confused by Tyler Wittman’s comment about the medieval theologians, for as Richard Mueller has shown there may be continuity between them and the Reformers, but there are still hermeneutical discontinuities and clamping down on allegorical interpretations was one of them.

    I would be interested Dr. Hamilton if you read Vanhoozer’s article “Ascending the Mountain, Singing the Rock” Modern Theology 28 (2012) as he makes remarks very challenging to TIS advocates. I particularly enjoyed his comment: “Allegorizing becomes problematic . . . insofar as it resembles a general hermeneutical strategy by which later readers find new meanings in texts unrelated to the human authorial discourse” (788). Unfortunately he still uses the term “figural reading” but he claims that typological exegesis “discovers the plain sense of the author . . . . It is only when we read the plain sense of the human author in canonical context that we discern the divinely intended ‘plain canonical sense,’ together with is ‘plain canonical referent’: Jesus Christ” (792, cf. 791).

    I would be grateful for any response Dr. Hamilton to my comments and if I am wrong about Ounsworth please do let me know bc right now I’m appealing to him on the points I cite above in my chapter on typology.

  5. E.D. Hirsch points out that if the meaning you come up with is not one intended by the author, you have authored that meaning. If the meaning you come up with is one of which the author would say, “yes, that’s what I meant,” then you have interpreted that meaning. With any text, we operate either as authors or interpreters. In regard to Scripture, I seek to interpret and not author meaning.

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