You are here

A Note on Typology

In 1 Cor 10:11, St. Paul declares "These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come." [NAB1. As it happens, the word the NAB translates as "example" is actually tau-upsilon-pi-omicron-sigma, or, transliterated, typos. One translation of this word is "type."] St. Irenaeus cites this verse in his work Against Heresies2

Thus, too, He imposed upon the [Jewish] people the construction of the tabernacle, the building of the temple, the election of the Levites, sacrifices also, and oblations, legal monitions, and all the other service of the law. He does Himself truly want none of these things, for He is always full of all good, and had in Himself all the odour of kindness, and every perfume of sweet-smelling savours, even before Moses existed. Moreover, He instructed the people, who were prone to turn to idols, instructing them by repeated appeals to persevere and to serve God, calling them to the things of primary importance by means of those which were secondary; that is, to things that are real, by means of those that are typical; and by things temporal, to eternal; and by the carnal to the spiritual; and by the earthly to the heavenly; as was also said to Moses, "Thou shalt make all things after the pattern of those things which thou sawest in the mount." For during forty days He was learning to keep [in his memory] the words of God, and the celestial patterns, and the spiritual images, and the types of things to come; as also Paul says: "For they drank of the rock which followed them: and the rock was Christ." And again, having first mentioned what are contained in the law, he goes on to say: "Now all these things happened to them in a figure; but they were written for our admonition, upon whom the end of the ages is come." For by means of types they learned to fear God, and to continue devoted to His service.

[Emphasis added to the citation from 1 Cor 10:11.] Thus, Irenaeus identifies the following biblical "code."

  • Secondary things of importance ==> primary things of importance.
  • Things that are typical ==> things that are real.
  • Things that are temporal ==> things that are eternal.
  • Things that are carnal ==> things that are spiritual.
  • Things that are earthly ==> things that are heavenly.

Similarly, we read in Dei Verbum, ¶ 15,

The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy (see Luke 24:44; John 5:39; 1 Peter 1:10), and to indicate its meaning through various types (see 1 Cor. 10:12 [sic]). Now the books of the Old Testament, in accordance with the state of mankind before the time of salvation established by Christ, reveal to all men the knowledge of God and of man and the ways in which God, just and merciful, deals with men. These books, though they also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show us true divine pedagogy. (1) These same books, then, give expression to a lively sense of God, contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way. Christians should receive them with reverence.

We fail to grasp the significance of circumcision, for example, if we confine our understanding to the literal. We get our first hint of this in Deuteronomy 30:6, "And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." The prophet Jeremiah picks up on this in the exhortation "Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your doings." [Jer 4:4] Then St. Paul declares in Romans 2:28-29:

For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.

Note that circumcision is an intimate matter hidden, ordinarily, from the world, but exposed to one's wife, and normally known to our parents and siblings, as well as, obviously, to God. Our "circumcision" to God, as a matter of the heart, is a similarly intimate matter. What matters most, of course, is visibility to God. This sentiment is echoed by Jesus in Matthew 6:2-4.

Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

We can generalize this to the act of giving, or dedicating, ourselves to God in an act of spiritual circumcision in which we expose our most intimate selves to his judgment. God, for his part, receives us with something analogous to the excitement and tenderness with which a loving wife receives her husband. In the code described by Irenaeus, these "figures" or "types" are physical, even carnal, but point to the spiritual. They are things of secondary importance that point to what is of primary importance. They are temporal, but point to the eternal. They are earthly, but point to the heavenly. They are symbolic, but point to the real.

God, for his part, expects us to receive him in the same way. This is most beautifully seen in the book, Song of Songs. Again, at the deepest level, this is allegorical, not literal, yet the openly sexual character of the writing makes it clear that only the most deeply intimate, sensual and emotional of human relationships can approach the range, depth and sheer generative power of the relationship God cultivates with us. As Eve declares in Genesis 4:1, "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD."3 Thus, sexual reproduction is analogous to the divine act of creation, and the relationship between God and man is inherently regarded as fecund. St. Paul adapts this imagery in his use of the phrase "in labor." See, for example, Romans 8:22-23 and Galatians 4:19, first to describe the gestational efforts of the Spirit of God and then to describe the gestational efforts of the Evangelist.4

Jesus presents an alternative type in Matthew 11:25-26.

I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.

Similarly,

Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

The key to understanding the significance of these images, of course, is appreciating the receptivity of a child. Whether we speak in terms of the receptivity of a loving wife or the receptivity of a child, the typology is what is important, not the literal, physical nature of the relationship.

Is it any wonder, then, that our post-modern culture is so well characterized by sterility, sexual dysfunction and rebellion?

  • 1. In one of the few instances I'm aware of that the RSV totally misses it, the translation of this verse is "Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come."
  • 2. See Chapter XIV, ¶ 3. For the text, check http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.pdf.
  • 3. The NAB gives "I have produced a man with the help of the LORD." The Hebrew verb translated variously as "gotten" and "produced" is pronounced "qanah."
  • 4. Knowing this, we can appreciate the abominable character of abortion in the eyes of God!
Share