Typology, Scripture, and Creation
We often hear from our “Evangelical” siblings that the Bible is “God’s Words, written down,” and that it contains no contradictions and no error. Such a view of scripture, however, is a modern artifact, arising only after the Renaissance. Taking “the literal sense of scripture” as its most important meaning, was almost always seen by Christians as a distortion. Throughout the Patristic period, more important for them was the “Four-fold” way of understanding:
Literal: What the passage says about past events
Allegorical: What the passage can tell us about Christ
Moral: What the passage can teach us about how to live
Anagogical: What the passage tells us about our ultimate fate
Allegorical interpretation was usually seen as the most important. This relied on seeing “types” or images and themes pointing to Christ.
A Canadian acquaintance of mine, John Andres, recently shared with me the following:
“One of my favourite saints and Church Fathers is St. Jacob of Serugh (A.D. 451-521) who wrote in Classical Syriac. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, a sister or cousin to the language natively spoken by Jesus Christ. The liturgical poetry of the Syriac Churches is still very close to the Hebraic worldview, and they tend to do theology not in terms of Greek mystical philosophy or Latin scholasticism, but through poetry, and particularly, an emphasis on the wonder that arises from paradox. One thing that sticks out for me when reading the Syriac Church Fathers is their approach to the Bible…
“[In our] culture there is a widely-held assumption that Biblical literalism is the default standard of how to read the Bible. Even the most well-meaning and kind atheist or sceptic that I get into a conversation with often still has hang-ups about the talking snake in Eden or the lack of evidence of an Exodus from Egypt, etc. Christians who read the Bible metaphorically or symbolically were somehow more 'enlightened' or 'more modern' or 'more progressive' - or if you're militantly atheist, these Christians are just 'deluded' and 'sticking their heads in the sand' and deceptively trying to make Christianity look more modern. However… I don't see this symbolic way of reading the Bible as 'progressive' or 'modern' but actually 'pre-modern' and 'traditional.' In fact, I see Biblical literalism …as 'modern' in comparison to the very traditional way of reading the Bible common among the Church Fathers, as a collection of prophecies, metaphors, and types that speak about Christ.
“I offer these three quotes by St. Jacob of Serugh to give you an idea about what I'm talking about. The first and third speak of Christ as a sea receiving the streams and rivers of symbols of the Bible into Himself. The second one, particularly, is very honest in its dealings with the more difficult parts of the Bible when it speaks of "dark sayings," and it brings a lot of humanity to the Church Fathers who clearly saw that some parts of the Bible are difficult and challenging.
“In Eden and in the world are parables of our Lord; and what tongue can gather the similitudes of His mysteries? For He is figured - all of Him in all things. In the Scriptures he is written of; on Nature He is impressed; His crown is figured in kings; in prophets, His truth; His atonement in priests. He was in the rod of Moses, and in the hyssops of Aaron, and in the crown of David; to the prophets pertains His similitude; to the Apostles, His Gospel. Revelations beheld Thee, proverbs looked for Thee, mysteries expected Thee. Similitudes saluted Thee, parables showed types of Thee. The covenant of Moses looked forward to the Gospel… Lo! The prophets have poured out on Him their glorious mysteries. The priests and kings have poured out upon Him their wonderful types. They have all poured themselves upon all of Him. Christ overcame and surpassed the mysteries by His teachings, the parables by His interpretations, just as the sea receives all streams into its midst. For Christ is the Sea, and He can receive the fountains and brooks, the rivers and streams that flow from the midst of Scriptures.” Hymns on Epiphany 4:18-25 “Thy great image is born by the books of prophecy, which carry Thee in solemn procession for the world to see how fair Thou art. From generation to generation, Thy type hath peered out like a luminary, and gladdened with its rising whomever saw Thee and marvelled. With the allegories and dark sayings in the Scriptures, the just ones in diverse places portrayed Thee through their revelations. In their own times and generations, they reverently bore Thee up, and one handed Thee to the next to become illustrious in Thee. The righteous Noah received Thee from Seth, the good man, and in the succession of the world, he placed Thee with Abraham. Isaac received Thee and was raised up as a likeness of Thee on Golgotha [Isaac was almost sacrificed], and Jacob stole Thine image [the inheritance exchanged for lentils] and fled to the land of Aram. Thou didst ordain Thy testimony in Joseph, who shone among the Egyptians, and Moses saw Thee on Mount Sinai with Thy Begetter. Aaron depicted Thee with the blood of sacrifices and oblations, and he sprinkled the entire path of Thy great slaughter with blood. Jesus[/Joshua] son of Nun, apparelled in Thy beautiful name, barred the day at will and prevented it from moving forward. Gideon prefigured Thee with the dew that he brought down when he prayed, and in Thee the conqueror conquered the camp of the Midianites. Jephthah found out the path of Thy sufferings by the slaying of his daughter, and sprinkled it with virgin’s blood on Thine account.” HS V, 331, 3-332,8
“This stream of symbols was unable to cleave the Sea [Christ] into which it fell, nor to flow toward another, since the Sea of truth received it. Since It is a wondrous gulf, all creatures cannot fill it. It confines all of them, but is not confined by them. The prophets poured into It their glorious symbols. Priests and kings poured into It their wondrous types. All of them poured into all of It [the Sea]. Christ was victorious and rose up. By His explanations for symbols, by His interpretations for similes, He, like the sea, will receive into Himself all the streams… Therefore, the Sea is Christ who is able to receive the sources and springs and rivers and streams that flow forth from within scripture… For it is Christ who perfects its symbols by His Cross, its types by His body, its adornments by His beauty, and all of it, by all of Him.” Hymns on Virginity 9:7-10, 12, 15.
Searching for “types” or allegorical layers of meaning is a much more orthodox and traditional way of reading scripture than is a simplistic “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
Grace and peace.