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In a recent discussion on a question about allegory, it was pointed out that allegory and typology are not the same thing. What are the differences between the two approaches? Is one a subset of the other? Are they at odds with one another? Or are they compatible approaches?

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This is a tricky question, because different people define these terms in different ways. But in essence:

  • Allegory is an extended metaphor; this is a meaning intended in the original text
  • Typology is a foreshadowing of later events; this is a secondary meaning that often can only be seen after the fact

There is some overlap between the two terms, but

Some examples of allegory in the Bible include:

  • The parable of the trees, Judges 9. The trees represent the lords of Shechem, and the bramble represents Abimelech.

  • The vine in Psalm 80. The vine represents Israel and its relationship with God.

  • Nathan's prophecy against David, 2 Samuel 12. As Nathan explains, King David is the rich man who steals from the poor.

  • Many parables of Jesus, e.g. the weeds and the wheat, Matthew 13:24-30; the good Samaritan, Luke 10:37-37; the vineyard, Mark 12:1-9, et al.

Typology is found throughout the New Testament. Some examples:

  • Matthew 2:15 quoting Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." The original refers to the Exodus; Matthew uses this typologically to refer to Joseph taking Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Israel's exodus from Egypt foreshadows Jesus' return from Egypt.

  • Hebrews 7 refers to King Melchizedek as "a priest forever", foreshadowing Jesus, who for Christians is the true "priest forever".

  • In Matthew 12:39-40 Jesus refers to Jonah's three days and nights in the belly of the whale as a "sign" foreshadowing Jesus' three days and nights in the tomb.

  • In John 3:14 the pole lifted by Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 21:9) foreshadows Jesus being "lifted up" on the cross.

  • Romans 5:14 explicitly calls Adam "a type of the one who was to come". The death which Adam brought to all of humanity foreshadows the life which Christ brings.

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Good question. These terms are not mutually exclusive and share elements, making it hard to sometimes understand the difference.

Allegory is a type of extended metaphor used in literature to convey a message or belief. A great Christian example of allegory is Aslan the lion from C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. He symbolizes Christ throughout the series and serves to bring a view of Jesus and His sacrifice into the stories. In this sense allegory is simply the technique used to bring the reader to see Christ in the character of Aslan.

Typology is different, especially in theology. Merriam-Webster’s defines typology as “a doctrine of theological types especially : one holding that things in Christian belief are prefigured or symbolized by things in the Old Testament.”1

The key point to take note of is the anticipation of a later event that typology is focused on. Put another way typology is, “A way of setting forth the biblical history of salvation so that some of its earlier phases are seen as anticipations of later phases, or some later phase as the recapitulation or fulfillment of an earlier one.”2

The distinction here is certainly subtle. One commentator on the Song of Solomon offers this explanation in his analysis of that book: “The line between allegory and typology is not always clear. Essentially, allegory is deliberately written. All the details of the composition have symbolic meaning. Typology rests on an historical or real foundation. Yet God intends for his people to see within those real events spiritual significance. More specifically, the Song may celebrate an actual relationship between Solomon and a maiden. Because, however, Solomon is a type of Christ, this marriage must have been intended by God to be typical of the relationship between Christ and his church.”3

Sources:

1Merriam-Webster, I. (2003). Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary. (Eleventh ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

2Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (1214). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

3Smith, J. E. (1996). The wisdom literature and Psalms. Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.

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Allegory is extended metaphor. (True allegory contains its interpretation, as "I am the true vine," John 15:1–8, but this is ignored in the allegorical interpretation.) Allegorical interpretation sees the OT as allegorical. Origen, for instance, said that Abraham's marriage to Keturah was not actual, but represents that there is no end to the getting of wisdom. I think that some allegorical interpreters did not deny historicity of narrative, but they did hold the historical to be a secondary sense.

Type, by contrast, is an event, person, institution, etc. that was designed by God to foreshadow (typify) a spiritual reality (the antitype), as the Passover lamb that typified Christ, John 1:28. By the typological interpretation is probably meant the idea that the OT is typical of Christ, as Jonah's being three days in the belly of the whale is said to typify Christ's three days in the tomb. The typical interpretation does not deny historicity, but argues that it ultimately foreshadows Christ.

In a nutshell, the difference is that allegoricalists affirm the allegorical meaning as primary, whereas typological allegorists hold the literal sense the primary one.

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Thanks for the answer. Why is Jonah's being three days in the belly of the whale a type and not an allegory for Christ's three days in the tomb? (Or maybe it is both?) –  Soldarnal Jun 5 '12 at 16:50
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Good catch. Allegorical interpreters could also allegorize Jonah and the whale. The difference would be that allegoricalists affirm the allegorical meaning as primary, whereas typological allegorists hold the literal sense the primary one. –  zpletan Jun 5 '12 at 18:08
    
But since Jesus said that all the scriptures spoke of him, and presumably that their purpose was to reveal him, wouldn't that make him an allegoricalist? –  Bob Jones Jun 9 '12 at 21:06
    
@Bob, not necessarily, but I think that position is, however, the basis of the allegorical interpretation. On the other hand, in Luke 24:25–27, Jesus berates his disciples for not knowing that the Scriptures spoke of himself, whereas, as Fairbairn often notes, the allegorical method is often dependent on fancy and does not lead different men to the same interpretation. In any case, this does not affect the definition I gave of the two hermeneutics. –  zpletan Jun 10 '12 at 4:41
    
Fairbain would say that a a lot of bad allegory just means that a lot of people did it badly, since he proposes to do it right. How would you categorize sensus plenior where the literal and spiritual layers coexist and are both important, the spiritual layer hidden in the genre of riddle. –  Bob Jones Jun 10 '12 at 12:52

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