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.

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