Back Issues


Volume 14, Issue 2: Presbyterion

This is More of That

Douglas Wilson

In our last installment, we addressed the importance of typological interpretation in handling the Word. If Scripture is sufficient for all things, then surely it must be sufficient to teach us how we are to handle the text of Scripture. The writers of the New Testament provide us with many examples of typological interpretation from the Old Testament, and we have a prima facie obligation to learn how to read Scripture the same way.

But a very important question was raised in that column which was not answered in any detail. Where are the brakes on this system of interpretation? How can we handle Scripture in this way without flying off into fanciful or frivolous interpretations? The fact that other schools of interpretation have to answer the same question does not mean that we have answered it.
So what prevents fanciful interpretation? How should we begin our lessons in a sober and biblically grounded typology? Perhaps an analogy can help. Consider the text of the New Testament on a single sheet as an overlay for the Old. The Old Testament is a single sheet underneath. Every place the New Testament interprets the Old in a particular way, (metaphorically) drive a nail through both testaments. Let the New Testament fix the meaning of every Old Testament passage it addresses.
What does this do to the passages that are not addressed directly? The passages that we have fixed in place limit our range of motion. Let me illustrate. To understand Adam as a type of Christ is settled by the New Testament (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). Adam had a wife named Eve (Gen. 3:20 ), and Christ has a bride also—the Church (Eph. 5:25). If we were to call the Church the last Eve, we are saying something that Scripture does not explicitly say anywhere, but which Scripture does implicitly require. Our fixed points of reference require this of us. We cannot consistently deny that the Church is an Eve—she is married to an Adam.
But if we were to say that Eve is a type of "Madeleine Albright listening to the United Nations serpent," then we are exercising our imaginations, not interpreting Scripture. Our interpretation amounts to little more than a common vocabulary exercise in elementary schools, where the students are told to write a story using this week's vocabulary words. Very few objective contraints are put on the work of imagination. The Madeleine Albright illustration is biblical interpretation only because biblical vocabulary words, like Eve, are used in it. As C.S. Lewis once said of fanciful interpretation, if the text had had small pox, the sermon wouldn't have caught it.
An exercise that could be very helpful to pastors in accomplishing this mindset is one that was instrumental in helping me shake loose many of the unbiblical doctrinal assumptions I picked up over the years. Most copies of the New Testament mark citations from the Old in some way. The unfortunate thing is that the reverse is not usually done—those places in the Old Testament which are quoted later on in the New are rarely marked as such. The thing to do is to fix the problem yourself with marker pens. Look up every place in the Old Testament which is quoted in the New and mark it with a highlighter. Then off in the margin write down the New Testament reference where it is quoted.
When this is done, it is time to read through the Old Testament, together with all the reminders that the New Testament contains authoritative teaching on the marked Old Testament passages. For example, when you come to Psalm 2, you are reminded at once that there is teaching on what the Psalm means in multiple places in the New Testament.
The first thing that will become apparent is that Jesus and His apostles had favorite books and passages. Anyone who wants to grasp the teaching of the New Testament has to master Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah, which are quoted in the New Testament constantly. And the way to learn these Old Testament books (and all the others) is to learn what the New Testament says about them. But this is rarely done. Any preacher who uses commentaries when preaching through Old Testament books can testify how rare it is for the apostolic interpretation to be taken into account by the commentator as he seeks to find the meaning of the text before him. Surely this should be a cause of astonishment.
The modernist approach to the text is to interpret it according to certain modernist rules, and to the extent the apostolic teaching is referenced at all, it provides anachronistic embarrassment. Once, while taking a class on hermeneutics at an evangelical seminary, I heard the instructor say that Paul was, and I quote, "wrong" in his handling of Hagar and Sarah. But this instructor never would have dreamed of saying that the academic experts were wrong about Genesis because they didn't see two covenants in these women.
Some might still be suspicious of reasoning "by good and literary consequence" from fixed reference points. In the abstract, it can sound scary, but it is still academic. Most of us could spend several profitable years discovering how thoroughly typological the New Testament handling of the Old Testament actually is in all the "fixed" places. Even if we never take a step beyond that, we will still find ourselves with a much richer understanding of the Word than we currently have.
And if we do take the next step, as we should, we will simply be following dominical and apostolic leadership.

Back to top
Back to Table of Contents


 
Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.