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A Reader Asks about Biblical Typology

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 2/8/12 at 1:00 AM

 

A reader writes:

I am a catechist at our parish (almost done a Master’s from the Augustine Institute) but am having trouble describing the relationship between typology and the Allegorical sense of Scripture.  Is the typological reading of Scripture synonymous with the allegorical?  Does the allegorical USE the typological?  It does seem that typology is a bridge between the literal sense and the spiritual senses of Scripture, but how is that to be understood? 

I know that the CCC 128 says that typology illuminates the unity of the Old and New Testaments by discerning the prefigurations in the OT that are fulfilled in the New.  It also states that, in the allegorical sense, “we can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ - using typology (117).  Is all typological reading allegorical but not all allegory typological?? 

I have searched your book, Making Senses Out of Scripture, but still cannot get clarity.  Can you help me??

Way to go on the Master’s!  The Augustine Institute is terrific!  If you see Dr. Tim Gray or Dr. Ted Sri, please tell them hello for me!  They do great work!

Your question is a good one.  In brief, the allegorical sense of Scripture is a subset of the various typologies that the Church has made use of over the centuries.  Permit me to translate into English for my readers who have not had the benefit of the excellent teaching of the Augustine Institute (which now has a Distance Program so you too, gentle Register readers, can study there!).

It’s not a big secret that Christianity inherits quite a bit from Judaism.  One of the things it inherits is a distinctly pre-modern way of reading Scripture.  The idea is that Scripture has a literal sense, but also more-than-literal senses.  Here’s the Catechism’s summary of this idea:

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.


116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.


1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.

2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.

3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.

118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.

The Church gets this conviction from none other than Jesus himself, who constantly reads the Old Testament with an eye out to secondary meanings.  In short, ancient Jews believed that just as we write with words, God “writes” with the things those words denote.  So he speaks to us through “signs” which include, not just miracles, but people, things, historic events and so forth.  So we read, for instance, the following story from the book of Numbers:

And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:5-9)

This is a mysterious passage for a number of reasons.  First, of course, is the fact that what is commanded by God as a cure is not some medicine (yes, ancients were familiar with things like herbs and poultices and so forth as ways of attempting to deal with stings, bites and so forth).  But even more than this is what *is* commanded as the remedy: namely, a graven image.  That could not help but be startling since the same God had famously forbidden the making of graven images.  It is bound, therefore, to be a passage that arrests the attention of the Jewish mind and invites the question, “Why?”  And it’s an image that, along with many other images and incidents from the Old Testament will be ruminated on for centuries in the quest to answer, “Why did God choose to act in *that* way when he could have done things any way he liked?  What’s he getting at?”

This is where the notion of typology comes from: the conviction that as far as the heavens are above the earth, so are God’s thoughts higher than ours.  Therefore, the Scriptures he inspires are crammed with meanings far deeper than the mere surface. This is, of course, true even with a human work of literature, but it is even truer when the Author is God.  So the ancient rabbis, and Jesus and the apostles after them, constantly speak of Scripture as having these secondary meanings.  Indeed, Jesus spells it out for the disciples on the Emmaus Road:

Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  (Luke 24:44-47)

In other words, Jesus says that the first thing we need to know about the deepest meaning of the Old Testament is that it is really about him, whatever it may appear to be about, since He is God and his Spirit inspired the people who wrote it, precisely to prepare Israel and the world for his coming.

For this reason, Jesus will, like a good Jew, look for the secondary meaning of the Bronze Serpent and tell us: “[A]s Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)  In short, the meaning of this mysterious “oracle” of the Bronze Serpent (as Paul calls it (Roman 3:2)) is Christ Jesus and him crucified.  Jesus will be “lifted up” on the cross to heal you from the ultimate snakebite—the one we got in the Garden.  It’s an image that connects us all the way back with the story of the Fall.

This particular Old Testament type is read in the allegorical sense: that is, it refers to Jesus and the Church.  But in the Catholic tradition there are also two other senses (in addition to the literal and allegorical) by which Old Testament types are read: the moral and anagogical senses.  So a moral “type” (one out of many in the Old Testament) is the tale of David and Goliath.  In the literal sense, of course, the story is plain enough: David killed the giant warrior with a sling after he arrogantly boasted against God.  But in the moral sense, we are given a classic image of humble courage against boasting power.  So even today we say “That guy is a regular David against Goliath” when he stands up to City Hall.  Or alternatively, the Temple has a moral sense in that we speak of the body as a temple. 

Likewise, the anagogical or “leading” sense of Scripture points to our destiny in Christ and looks for types that speak of this.  So, for instance, the city of Jerusalem is seen by John as an image of our heavenly destiny (“I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2)).  Meanwhile, Jesus uses a the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem (which was the site of sacrificial murder of children in the worship of Moloch) as the image of Hell (“Gehenna” is the Greek name for both Hell and the Valley of Hinnom).

In all this, typology is at work, but different typological images are read in different senses.  Indeed, sometimes the same image will be read in different senses.  So, for instance, the veil separating the Holy of Holies is seen both allegorically (as an image of the torn body of Christ) but also anagogically (as an image of the fact that through Christ’s sacrifice we have access to the heavenly Holy of Holies and now participate in the life of the Blessed Trinity).

So, in answer to my reader’s question: All allegorical readings of Scripture are typological, but not all typological readings are allegorical.  The allegorical sense pertains to things that signify Christ and the Church.  The moral sense signifies things which pertain to our moral lives as disciples of Christ.  The anagogical sense pertains to our destiny in Christ.  But whichever of the spiritual senses of Scripture are in play, typology is at the heart of all of them.

I hope that helps.