Of Types and Truth
In our recent studies in Isaiah, I have seen more clearly than ever before the physical nature of God’s promises concerning his coming rule on earth during the Day of the Lord. Mount Zion will be the capital of all the earth (Isa 24:33). It will be exalted above all the mountains (2:1), though now it is overshadowed by the Mount of Olives. Gentiles will bring their tribute over the sea in ships (60:9), and will offer sacrifices on God’s altar (60:7). Springs will rise out of the hilltops (30:25), and the barren land will be rejuvenated (35:1-2).
What shall we make of these promises? Should we expect their literal fulfillment when the Lord Jesus returns? Or are they figurative descriptions of God’s blessing on the church? I recently had an insight that helps me understand some of the disagreement among Christians on this point.
The view that the Old Testament promises will be fulfilled during Christ’s reign on earth is called Millennialism, from the description in Revelation 20 of a thousand-year reign of Christ. The view that these promises are only figurative takes two main forms, Postmillennialism (in which the church on earth acts for Christ as he rules in heaven) and Amillennialism (in which Christ’s reign is in the hearts of his people). Postmillennialism was more common in the days when “Christian” nations were trying to spread their culture (including their state churches) through colonial efforts. Today most people who deny a literal reign of Christ on earth are amillennialists, and I’ll use that term loosely to include anybody who does not believe that the Lord will return to reign over this physical earth before the last judgment.
To be clear, both sides in the discussion believe in a coming judgment before the great white throne (Rev 20:11), followed by the destruction of this present world and the inauguration of a new heaven and a new earth where our Lord rules with his Father (Revelation 21). The disagreement is over the prophets’ promises that the Lord will renew and rule over the present earth. For example, the ships promised in Isa 60:9, and the description of the land in terms of the Great Sea (the Mediterranean) in Ezekiel 47-48, are incompatible with the new heaven and new earth, in which “there [is] no more sea,” Rev 21:1. If these promises are literal, they must be fulfilled before the events of Revelation 21.
Personally, I believe in a physical, earthly fulfillment to the Old Testament promises. But I’ve been involved in some discussions lately that have have stimulated me to probe more deeply into how some people who are very serious about their faith in Christ and their belief in the Bible can avoid the direct meaning of those promises. As I’ve read the writings of amillennial authors, I’ve been struck by how central the notion of typology is to understanding the current conceptual landscape.
In interpreting the Bible, a type is generally understood to be a divinely purposed representative relationship between some person, event, or institution in the Old Testament and a corresponding person, event, or institution in the New Testament. This is Milton Terry’s definition in Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 336, and it’s close enough to what most people understand by the term to serve our purposes.
Everybody believes in typology, at some level. Paul’s description of our Lord as the “last Adam” in 1 Cor 15:45, and his comparison of Adam’s sin and our Lord’s righteousness in Rom 5:12-21, clearly show that he sees a representative relationship between Adam and the Messiah.
The argument between millennialists and amillennialists generally goes something like this:
Millennialist: The Old Testament prophets describe a restoration of this present earth under God’s direct rule. So that’s what’s going to happen.
Amillennialist: But those prophecies are types. They aren’t intended to be taken literally.
Millennialist: I agree that there are types in the Bible, in the historical books. But we have to take God’s promises literally. Those who heard them originally understood them literally, and if God meant them figuratively, he would have been deceiving them.
Amillennialist: The New Testament writers clearly interpret those prophecies as referring to the church. We must follow their interpretation, and treat them as typological.
In this form, the discussion usually comes down to a disagreement over whether typological interpretation is appropriate only for historical material, or also for prophetic material. Cast in this way, the argument appears to favor the amillennialist, who wants to take a consistent approach to all of Scripture.
My insight is that the disagreement isn’t so much over where we should apply typology, as it is over just what typology means. It’s a disagreement about the relation between typology and truth.
Let’s return to the example of Adam. When Paul uses Adam to explain the ministry of Christ, he is not denying the physical reality of Adam. He accepts the literal sense of Genesis 1-3. When he compares that literal history with what our Lord did, he recognizes similarities between them. Typology in this case supplements the literal interpretation. It traces conceptual similarities between an Old Testament text, understood as literally true, and a New Testament event, also understood as literally true. For Paul, typology supplements truth. It does not supplant it.
When the amillennialist invokes typology to explain the relation between (say) Isaiah 60 and the New Testament, he is claiming that the prophecy is not to be understood in its literal sense. However the original hearers understood it, God did not really mean to promise that the Lord would reign in Jerusalem and receive offerings brought by ship on physical oceans from the ends of the earth. His meaning was rather that Gentiles would come into the church and worship God spiritually. For the amillennialist, when interpreting prophecies of the coming kingdom, typology replaces the literal meaning of the text.
The use of typology to deny the literal meaning of the Old Testament prophecies has a long heritage, dating back to Origen about A.D. 200, and flourishing during the long era of “Christian” nations that began with the conversion of Constantine in A.D. 312. As modern history made it clear that Christ is not ruling through the alliance of church and state, many believers went back to the prophets and realized that their promises, understood literally, fit very well with the natural sequence of Revelation chapters 19-21: the return of Christ, followed by a renewed earth under his direct reign, followed by the great white throne, followed by the new heavens and the new earth. Because of what they saw as the misleading use of typology in previous generations, they naturally were suspicious of any interpretation that would call that literal meaning into question. In particular, they sometimes denied any relation between the prophecies and the church. The prophecies applied exclusively to Israel. The church was a new creation, unanticipated in the Old Testament.
In rejecting any typological application of kingdom prophecies to the church, the new millennialists were reacting against the idea that typology replaces the literal meaning. But the example of Adam and Christ shows that typological interpretation of the prophecies need not replace their literal meaning. Once we realize that typology and literal truth can coexist, we may be able to understand why Paul doesn’t seem averse to drawing parallels between Israel and the church. He describes the privileged position of Gentile believers by comparing them with Abraham (Rom 4), and calling them daughters (e.g., citizens) of Jerusalem (Gal 4:26). He encourages Gentile believers in Asia Minor to use the Psalms in worship (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Many of the Psalms concern Israel’s restoration and the coming kingdom, and singing them unavoidably leads believers to appropriate to themselves many of Israel’s hopes and blessings. In spite of these typological allusions, Paul still looks forward to a time after Christ’s return when our Lord will literally bring all enemies under his feet, before finally delivering up the kingdom to his Father (1 Cor 15:23-28).
True consistency in typological interpretation encourages millennialists to recognize the illustrative value of Israel’s experiences and hopes in understanding our privileges now in Christ. Such an understanding does not challenge the literal fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, any more than does Paul’s discussion of Adam in Romans 5 imply that Genesis 1-3 is “only typological” and not literal.
But if millennialists should consider the need to apply typology consistently to the historical and the prophetic portions of the Old Testament, so should the amillennialists. If the typological interpretation of prophecy replaces the literal meaning, what need is there to affirm the literal accuracy of the historical records of the Old Testament? If Adam is a type of Christ, then what matters about Adam is the story about him and what it teaches us about our Lord’s work, not whether or not he actually lived, and sinned, and was judged, in the way that Genesis 1-3 describes. The amillennial view of typology as replacing the literal sense opens the door to viewing all of the Old Testament in this way. The historical accuracy of the text no longer matters, if it is only a symbol of the New Testament reality. Believers who are flirting with amillennialism should seriously consider the implications of the interpretive commitment that they are making.
The danger that amillennialism can lead to broader unbelief in the literal accuracy of Scripture is not just a theory. The denial of the literal truth of Genesis 1-12 that has become so common in liberal churches did not originate among those who have always looked forward to Christ’s return as replacing human government (for example, the anabaptist tradition). It arose in the denominational churches, which grew up in partnership with the “Christian” state. As I will discuss in another post, their alliance with the state required those churches to deny a literal millennium. That denial motivated an understanding of typology as supplanting, rather than supplementing, literal interpretation, and that understanding naturally extended itself to denying the literal sense of many aspects of Old Testament history.
We should not be afraid of hearing echoes of Old Testament people, events, and institutions in the New Testament, whether the Old Testament describes those people, events, and institutions as part of the past (history) or the future (predictive prophecy). But we must realize that figurative echoes supplement literal truth. They do not supplant it. The strength of the type of Adam in Romans 5 is that Adam really did live, he really did sin, he really was the father of all mankind, and that literal reality establishes the principle of federal headship through which our Lord brings salvation to all of us. The strength that the church can draw from singing Psalms about the coming vindication and restoration of Zion is that Zion really will be vindicated and restored, and that literal reality establishes the principle of divine deliverance and vindication that has encouraged the church in times of persecution in the past, and will sustain her in the growing trials that we see around us today. Israel is not the church. But in many ways, she prefigures the church, and the church can learn important lessons not just from her history but from her divinely documented future as well.