Irenaeus’ Typology: History and Textual Warrant [5]

irenaeus4[Thus far we have introduced Irenaeus, considered his view of Scripture, and his biblical theology; today and tomorrow we will look at how Irenaeus used typology. Enjoy].

An Evaluation of Irenaeus’ Typology

In reading Against Heresies, it becomes apparent that typology is a primary means by which he explains the OT and NT. Appealing to recapitulation, citing specific types, and demonstrating from the text recurring biblical patterns, Irenaeus intentionally and consciously employs typology. Some examples of his typology have already been cited, now in what remains, Irenaeus’ method will be examined in light of recent scholarship on the subject.[1]

In his 1981 dissertation on typology and the hermeneutical use of typos in the New Testament, Richard Davidson provides four objective criteria for a biblically-warranted typology. He says that for typology to be legitimate, it must be: 1) grounded in history; 2) an interpretation of Scriptural passages; 3) specifically parallel and not simply a general correspondence; and 4) prospective.[2] Admittedly, it is anachronistic to judge Irenaeus by Davidson’s modern rubric; nonetheless, employing his diagnostics will help determine the abiding faithfulness, and therefore usefulness, of Irenaeus’ typological method.  Today we will consider the first two criteria.

Typology and History

First, Irenaeus roots his typology in history. From start to finish, Irenaeus is crafting his arguments along a redemptive-historical grid.[3] More specifically, in Book 3, he contends that the same God who revealed himself in the OT, fulfilled his promises in the NT.[4] The outworking of this promise-fulfillment is a biblical hermeneutic that is very sensitive to progressive revelation and the historicity of the text.

For instance, Irenaeus understands all history to be divinely foreshadowed in the first six days of creation.[5] Though this is a spurious interpretation of Genesis 1, it does illumine how he understood history. For Irenaeus, all history is God’s history, and resultantly, history is a stage on which God is accomplishing his plan of salvation. As Frances Foulkes quips, “Typological interpretation…is the interpretation of history.”[6] In Against Heresies, Irenaeus is clearly expounding a historical typology, where “God is sovereign over history,” where “historical patterns…theologically foreshadow later recurrences of similar things,” and where “the final historical fulfillments eclipse their prior counterparts.”[7]

Typology and Textual Warrant

Second, Irenaeus derives his typological interpretations from Scripture; the majority of which have legitimate textual warrant, even if the interpretation is askance. Over against the Gnostics, who mangle the Bible for their own devious interpretations,[8] Irenaeus labors to exegete the text in its canonical context. For instance, he makes repeated reference to his “proofs drawn from the Scriptures,”[9] while at the same time, he argues that biblical interpretation must emerge for the harmonious testimony of Scripture.[10]

Consequently, Irenaeus’ consistently attempts to make legitimate type-antitype correspondences emerge from the text. This is evident in his Adam-Christ typology;[11] in his assertion that Jonah is a sign of the Christ;[12] in his comparison between Eve and Mary, where the latter virgin obediently recapitulates the failure of the mother of all living;[13] in his typological interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar and the Antichrist;[14] and in his assertion that the scarlet cord in Rahab’s window is prefiguring the admittance of prostitutes into the kingdom of God.[15]

From this list, it is evident that Irenaeus has varying levels of biblical support: Adam-Christ and Jonah-Christ are clearly recognized as legitimate typological structures (cf. Rom. 5:12ff; Matt. 12:41); Eve-Mary and Nebuchadnezzar-Antichrist are more speculative, but still may find textual support in both testaments with differing degrees of correspondence.[16] This is considerably true for the latter, where Revelation 17-18 depicts the fall of the Antichrist in Babylonian terminology. Finally, though maligned as fanciful allegory, Irenaeus’ scarlet cord typology is based on the antecedent theology of the Passover and a NT correspondent: “The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you” (Matt. 21:31).

For Irenaeus, the issue of textual warrant boils down to interpretive accuracy. His method is self-consciously biblical, contextual, and correspondent—that is seeking to find types and their antitypes from within the canon. The problem is that at times he fails to live up to his own standards, and at other points his biblical saturated mind may go to far in drawing speculative connections. This leads to a third point, which we will pick up tomorrow.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

[1] In recent decades, the topic of typology has only increased in intensity and scrutiny. The scope of this paper disallows citing or referring to this ever-expanding body of literature. Instead, it will utilize the conclusions of one major work to analyze Irenaeus typology.

[2] Davidson, Typology in Scripture, 421-22.

[3] Though describing Irenaeus’ other work, The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, Dockery writes affirming Irenaeus perception of Christian history, “It presented Christ and Christianity as the fulfillment of the Old Testament by means of a Christological-typological reading of the text. Salvation history was structured according to the various covenants of God with man” (Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 68). This kind of redemptive-historical framework is seen at work in Against Heresies.

[4] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 3.6-10.

[5] Ibid., 5.28.3.

[6] Frances Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament” in The Right Doctrine for the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 342.

[7] Jonathan Lunde in the “Introduction” to Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 19.

[8] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 1.8.1; 2.9.4.

[9] Ibid., 5.14.4; cf. 3:19.2; 4.33.15.

[10] Ibid., 2.28.3.

[11] Ibid., 5.23.1-2.

[12] Ibid., 3.20.1.

[13] Ibid., 5.19.1-2.

[14] Ibid., 5.29.1-2.

[15] Ibid., 4.20.12.

[16] Denying the woman who suffered from an issue of blood as a type of the Gnostic’s “suffering aeon,” Irenaeus did articulate a need for certifiable correspondence between type and antitype, when he said, “For a type and emblem is, no doubt, sometime diverse from the truth [signified] as to matter and substance; but it ought to the general form and features, to maintain a likeness [to what it typified], and in this way to shadow forth by means of things present those which are yet to come” (Irenaeus Adversus haereses 2.22.1).

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