The Differences Between Typology and Allegory

The Differences Between Typology and Allegory

In recent theological scholarship there is a move to combine typology and allegory under the heading of figural reading.[1] Many Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) advocates view typology and allegory as lying on a continuum, or posit that both belong to the same family of reading strategies. Much of this is driven by the push for theological retrieval, with TIS proponents arguing that distinguishing typology and allegory in the early church writings is impossible. Further, they argue that the patristic writers rightly applied literal and spiritual senses because the biblical texts carry deeper meanings that point beyond itself.

In some quarters of past evangelical scholarship, typology and allegory were distinguished in a simplistic or reductionistic manner. When one says that typology involves history and thus is acceptable while allegory is non-historical and to be rejected, this is an overly simplified attempt of distinguishing them. Further, while some evangelical scholars have appealed to church history to categorize typology as the approach of the Antiochene school (a notable figure being John Chrysostom) and allegory as the method of the Alexandrian school (influenced by Origen) in the fourth century, but this has been shown to be misguided.[2] Nevertheless, careful Bible readers must distinguish typology and allegory in order to avoid confusion and interpretative mistakes. Another critically important distinction is to separate biblical typology and allegory from typological or allegorical interpretation. This article seeks to address both issues in what follows.

Typology Is Not Allegory

Allegory and typology have literary characteristics that differ in the Bible. Just as there are many figures of speech and nonliteral language—metaphors, hyperboles, synecdoche, and metonymy—so there are also parables, symbols, analogies, prophecies, allegories, and typologies in Scripture as well. At a most basic level, an allegory is “to mean something other than what one says.”[3] Allegory as a literary form is an extended metaphor or a trope that illustrates a story or conveys a truth by personifying abstract concepts.[4] In an allegory, meaning is extended in terms of parallels or analogies between two or more ideas. A common example of an allegory is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. But allegory is also found in Scripture; examples include Ezekiel 17:1–10Ecclesiastes 12:3–7Psalm 80:8–15John 10:1–16Ephesians 6:1–11, and arguably Matthew 22:1–14. In each of these passages there are literary features of extended metaphors or figures that represent or symbolize certain truths or concepts. In sum, an allegory describes a larger narrative episode that has features laden with symbols.

On the other hand, typology in Scripture is a special and unique phenomenon of special revelation. Biblical types are particular Old Testament persons, events, actions, and institutions that God has providentially intended and invested to correspond to, foreshadow, and prefigure escalated and intensified New Testament realities (antitypes).[5] There are many examples of types, such as Adam, the flood, the exodus, Melchizedek, the sacrificial system, the temple, and so on. Allegory features an episode with many elements of metaphor and imagery to convey a truth or idea. However, typological patterns in Scripture are more discrete as real phenomena—persons and events—correspond and anticipate future fulfillment in similar, yet different persons and events—primarily Jesus Christ and the redemption he accomplishes. Typology generally involves a heavenly prototype or archetype which corresponds to an Old Testament copy or shadow (the type), which in turn points to and is fulfilled in the New Testament antitype.

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