Typology vs. Secular Modernity
In Against Christianity (pp. 56-58), Peter Leithart writes:
One of the contributions of twentieth-century Catholic nouvelle theologie, and of Henri de Lubac and Hean Danielou in particular, was a rehabilitation of patristic and medieval typological exegesis of the Bible. Typological interpretation assumes that events and institutions of the Old Testament present, to use Augustine’s terminology, “latent” pictures of Christ. Typological interpretation, in short, sees the whole Bible as gospel, with the gospel narrowly conceived (the story of Jesus) as the culmination of a larger story.
Of equal importance is the insight that the Christ to whom the Old Testament testifies is the totus Christus, Head and body, Jesus and His Church. In this, the fathers and medieval theologians were fully in line with Paul, who wrote that the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness were “things written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). The gospel is the story of the Church as well as the story of Jesus. Following the apostolic example, the fathers saw the brides and harlots of Old Testament history as the Church under various guises, and thus they could view Old Testament history as the story of Yahweh’s stormy betrothal with His headstrong bride, fulfilled now in the Father’s arranged marriage to His Son in the Spirit-prepared Church. Augustine made it a basic principle that the Psalms are now the words of the Savior, now the words of His people crying for salvation, now, mystically, both together. Psalms is the songbook of the whole Christ: in it Jesus speaks “of us, by us, in us, while we speak in Him.”
At its best, typological interpretation is quite different from allegory. While Greek allegorists interpreted myths as embodiments of timeless and abstract principles (thus turning the Bible into theology ), the fathers plundered the Old Testament to divine the patterns of history. When it has paid attention to the Old Testament at all, modern theology has approached it in a very different manner. Rejecting typology as fanciful and unscientific, many theologians have treated the Old Testament as a purely historical document with little or no religious significance for the Church. Others, no less hostile to typology, see the transition from Old to New as a change from a historical, material, bodily, and social religion to a timeless, spiritual, and individual one (i.e. Christianity).
Opposition to typology not only fuels Christianity but, because of that, assists in the establishment of secular modernity. If the hermeneutical trajectory is from the Old Testament events to the motions of the individual soul, then, as de Lubac argued, Christ’s coming has delivered the whole of public life over to the rough play of secular and impersonal forces. So Schleiermacher, the preacher of what Barth called “conciousness theology,” says that the Old Testament is to be utterly repudiated as part of the Christian Bible and, consistently, also castigates those who would wish to drag religion from the “depths of the heart into the civil world,” where, presumably, it can only be contaminated. A privatizing and spiritualizing hermeneutics thus helps outfit a public square that, if not entirely naked, wears a skimpy thing that scarcely covers what looks like an iron cage.
By emphasizing that the Church as a real historical institution and communion was prophesied and typified under the old order, typology makes clear that it is of the essence of the Church to deny that the public square is dressed in a flag and nothing but a flag.
If the Church is to recover the gospel, she is to recover typological interpretation and learn to repeat, without irony or embarrassment and as a political credo, the words of Paul: “Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”
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Typology is often seen as a marginal enterprise—cute, but not the stuff of serious biblical scholarship nor important to the Church’s mission. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Typology is one of the chief weapons in the Church’s war against Christianity.
Which is to say, typology is one of the chief weapons in the Church’s war against secular modernity.
If Dr Leithart’s title seems confusing, there’s a helpful review here:
“Christianity, Leithart argues, is a religion formed around a haphazard arrangement of modern values and practices. It understands Christian community to be a religious layer on social life; it emasculates biblical religion through intellectualization and privatization. Instead of confronting the language of existing culture with a robust language of its own, it offers theology, a sterile environment in which one speaks of God using clean terms, removing Him and His work from time in order to dissect timeless truths. Theology merely adds religious words and phrases to the stock of existing language.”