Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture

In 1845, Patrick Fairbairn, Professor of Divinity at the Free Church College, Glasgow, published a massive two-volume work, The Typology of Scripture Viewed in Connection with the Whole Series of Divine Dispensations. The Free Church had been founded after the “Great Disruption” of 1843, which split the Church of Scotland. It is now Trinity College, Glasgow. It is, therefore, no surprise that the book reflects the intensity of the period.

Fairbairn opens with a distinction between allegory and typology. There has been a lot of dispute over this issue, and personally I think that the distinction can be easily pushed too far. An “allegory,” says Fairbairn, is a story – whether true or fictional – told only to point to another story (2). He gives an Old Testament example, but I think it would be fair to take the Parable of the Sower told by Our Lord. He told a story about growing plants, but all the value of the story is because of what it tells about God, the Gospel, the human heart, and the devil. In other words, there are two senses here: the story of a man and his attempts to make a crop grow, and the inner meaning which Our Lord taught His apostles.

Typology is different according to Fairbairn because it does not tell two stories, it only tells one, but gives that one story two meanings. An excellent example comes from the First Epistle of St Peter, where we read, in the New KJV:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God … when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ … (1 Peter 3:18-21)

Unlike Our Lord, who was narrating a tale which had not occurred, to tell us about what does happen, St Peter was saying here is that there really was an Ark which saved people from the flood, and that baptism really does work for our salvation. So we have two things, both of which are real, but which have the one meaning. They are therefore antetypeand type. That is, one is the echo of the other, but both are historical.

Sometimes these allegories strike us as rather far-fetched. For example, Fairbairn refers to Abraham marrying Sarah and later Hagar because he had no children by Sarah (Genesis 11:31 and 16:3). An ancient writer, Clement of Alexandria, says that Abraham stands for the perfect Christian, Sarah for divine wisdom, and Hagar for philosophy or human wisdom. As an allegory, this means that while the Christian only studies divine wisdom, one will never produce anything lasting, for that, one needs philosophy. Then, having mastered philosophy (represented by Hagar giving birth to Ishmael), he can have children by divine wisdom (Sarah giving birth to Isaac) (p.6).

I do not think that this sort of biblical analysis helps us very much today, but that is what allegory is. Even in the ancient world, it was felt to be rather artificial and valueless. The Christians of Antioch did not favour this type of Alexandrian theology: they preferred to find the meaning in the text.

Fairbairn’s heroes of biblical interpretation are, of course, the Protestants. He says that they began to examine “the original text … with something like critical exactness …” (p.8). Too critical, one might think. At least allegory treats scripture as a divine revelation and mystery, whereas the natural result of the Protestant “critical” approach is rejecting those parts we would rather were not there, and – ultimately – a lack of faith in the Bible. Of course, Luther and Calvin would have been horrified by what has happened: but it followed from their principles. To his credit, Fairbairn says that Calvin was too literal, especially in interpreting prophecy, and that the Protestants were not much interested in types, and certainly did not attempt “to construct a well-defined and properly grounded typological system” (p.9).

In the 17th century, Protestants began to discover typology, and to observe that there were some instances in scripture where something is said to be a type (e.g. 1 Peter 3), and others where there were types, but the vocabulary of typology is not used in the scripture (pp.10-11). This is a good point. The question is how one applies it. Some of the examples given strike me as implausible, e.g. that Jacob in the Book of Genesis supplanting his brother Esau is a type of Our Lord’s “supplanting death, sin, and Satan” (p.12). I would say no, Jacob and Esau are rather antetypes of intra-family strife. Neither does it work as an allegory, because Esau is not evil: in fact he has some good points. But this is also Fairbairn’s view: he says that some of the analogies were “trifling … and even altogether false …” (p.13). It needed, he said, “essential principles or fixed rules by which to guide its interpretations …” (p.13)

I am no historian of Protestant theology, but I see no reason to doubt his conclusion that this way of proceeding brought typology into what he calls “disrepute” (p.14). However, it is like blaming cooking because I burnt the toast. Once more to his credit, Fairbairn states that this was a shame, because typology allowed us to keep Christ in mind (p.15). This is very true, by being able to relate events, people and phenomena to the life and work of Christ, we see how central that is and always has been in history. Sadly, he notes, even in the United Kingdom, where there was more interest in typology, it eventually fell out of favour, not because it was opposed, but because it was ignored, or rather displaced by other ways of doing theology.

And that is what I suggest has happened in the Maronite Church. Our natural Semitic way of doing theology, typology, has been displaced. It is not as if it is the only way of doing theology: but it is a legitimate way, and it was in favour by the New Testament authors. And what is more – it marks the thinking of the Lord Himself.

I have only scratched the surface here, but it is still something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *