Q&A: What is Systematic Typology?

or The Killer Hermeneutic

An online acquaintance asked: “There’s a hermeneutical method that’s been used on this site called ‘systematic typology’. What is it? How does one apply it? Are there contexts where it is considered to be a particularly good or particularly bad fit? Where can one go to learn more about it? And where does it come from? (Who developed it, and based on what?)

What is it?

Firstly, this is a term I’ve given to a process which I didn’t invent. The name is simply to get people thinking, to get across to the modern thinker that there is a very definite internal logic to the symbolism of the Bible.

Just as systematic theology identifies and isolates similar ideas, so systematic typology identifies similar symbols but does not isolate them. Rather it notices their use at similar points in repeated literary and historical structures or processes or architectures.

How does one apply it?

In two ways: firstly, we must learn the Bible’s symbol language; secondly, we must notice that these symbols are used in a repeated structure, which helps not only to identify them, but also to show how different symbols are used to communicate similar themes. The repeated structure is what allows us to make and verify the typological connections between the events described. It also reveals when the Bible’s typology is being abused. An abuse is like a wrong note in a familiar tune.

The most basic event-structure is the Creation narrative in Genesis 1, and it is the chord from which the entire Bible “symphony” flows. When you see a passage that recapitulates the Creation Week, there are some very valid things you can draw from the text that aren’t actually written in it. An example would be Ezekiel’s use of the Creation pattern as he liturgically “de-creates” the Temple and Israel in his early chapters. The allusion is structural, and a familiarity with the symbols used in each step allows us not only to identify the structure but to pick up when the prophet is deliberately inverting something or changing it to make a point. Another example which comes to mind is Isaiah is working his way through the Tabernacle furniture in one of his prophecies. When he gets to the Incense Altar, he says that Israel’s sacrifices are a stench in God’s nostrils. If we know what he is doing structurally, suddenly the passage is opened to us.

The basic structures we must learn are the Creation Week, Israel’s festal calendar, the Tabernacle, the Covenant pattern, and the resulting process of maturity and dominion. All of these align with each other.

If this all sounds too complicated, it’s not. It’s something you already do if you are into literature or even popular culture. It’s no different than figuring out when a modern movie is a retelling of a Shakespearian play. I think Western writers have the Bible’s shape so ingrained in their thinking that they use it unconsciously – the recent James Bond movie Skyfall, for instance, has a liturgical shape.

Are there contexts where it is considered to be a particularly good or particularly bad fit?

Because the Bible is so consistent in a) its use of symbols and b) their placement in a consistent order, I have found this process useful in all of Scripture. In fact, it answers a great many theological debates. I believe the documentary hypothesis was an error, but only because its proponents did not have the necessary understanding of the Bible’s structure. What appears disordered to us is actually a very careful order. A few months ago, I worked through the book of Numbers. “Systematic typology” explained its structure at three or four levels (sevenfold within sevenfold etc.) and recently worked through Ephesians, which contains exactly the same patterns. What is really interesting is that the structure reveals many of Paul’s allusions and they are stunning. For instance, in one passage he works through Israel’s feasts, and basically makes the Gentile Church the new Firstfruits, that is, a new Levitical priesthood. This would have been shocking to first century Jews who must have been familiar with the “liturgical” structure of the Torah.

Where can one go to learn more about it?

The first thing to do is to learn the Bible’s symbol language. If you read the Scriptures regularly, you will find that when things are pointed out, you already sort of knew them. The best place to start is James B. Jordan’s book, Through New Eyes which is available on amazon.com, or you can download a free PDF from www.biblicalhorizons.com. The site also has a “manifesto” on symbolism, and there is much help in the introduction to his commentary on Judges which you will also find in PDF. He speaks about identifying repeated themes and roles. It surprised me how important Genesis 1-3 is for interpreting the rest of the Bible. The roles of Adam, Eve and serpent keep recurring. For instance, Judges is a book about head-crushing. Jordan also has many Bible lectures, available from www.wordmp3.com Please note, he takes a little while to get used to, but he will teach you to think like a Hebrew, that is, visually. He is American, but recently gave some introductory lectures in London and they are available for free here.

My work has been to “systematize” Jordan’s thinking, giving it some terminology and laying out the structures visually. Once you are more familiar with the symbol language, the architecture, and its source in Genesis, you might like to move on to my ‘Bible matrix’ books, which explain each pattern and how it is used. You will see that each Bible text is a microcosm of the whole.

Genesis 1 is the Bible Matrix. As it matures throughout the Scriptures, the identification of this pattern unlocks the books of Moses, Israel’s history, the structure of Jesus’ ministry and the book of Revelation. If the Bible is truly God’s Word, should we expect anything less? It also has staggering implications concerning the identity, purpose and future of Christianity—and these implications are thoroughly, joyously liberating.

And where does it come from? (Who developed it, and based on what?)

Quite a number of theologians have identified the Creation Week as deep structure in many Scriptures. Jordan noticed its similarity to the Covenant pattern (the suzerainty treaty) What I have done, being a visual thinker, is to diagram these and lay them out a little more plainly. So this process is not new. But it is not a haphazard or occasional ornamental literary flourish. It is a carefully integrated weave, and I have found that it often answers questions of variant readings (the structure often shows that a phrase in question is required to keep it complete).

What this boils down to is learning not only the symbols as “musical notes” but also the tunes which they keep repeating. This includes the sacred architecture, which begins in the Garden, works through the Tabernacle and Temple and is finally expressed “in flesh” in the Christian Church. I am confident that this process works because it has never failed. It is remarkably consistent, incredibly intricate, and yet all based on a relatively simple formula.

Symbols and structure cannot be divorced. Very often, the particular placement of a symbol within a structure is what reveals its meaning. So structural analysis is crucial. This is why I find the sole reliance on word studies so frustrating. That is only part of what needs to be done. What the word is is important, but just as important is where it is in the phrase and where the phrase is in the passage. If you want to see this in action, check out my recent work on Ephesians. Note that it might seem incomprehensible until you learn the basic tools. But it will give you an idea of how the text is constructed.

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