Irenaeus’ Typology: Specificity and Predictive Prophecy [6]

irenaeus6[This is the second part of Irenaeus’ view of typology (Part 1), the sixth part of a series examining the hermeneutics of the Bishop of Lyons].

Yesterday we argued that Irenaeus’ typology was rooted in history and attempted to ground all typical references in the text.  Today we will consider two more features of his typology, that being 3) specificity and 4) predictive prophecy.  These four categories–history, textual warrant, specificity, and predictive prophecy are derived from Richard Davidson’s book Typology in Scripture, an excellent study on the linguistic rationale for typology within the Bible.

Typology and Specificity

Third, Irenaeus is sufficiently detailed in his typology, sometimes, in fact, too much so. Concerning such specificity, Davidson avers, “Typology is not merely a recognition of the ‘recurring rhythm’ or ‘structural analogy’ within God’s revelation in history;” instead it “consists of divinely designed, predictive prefigurations of specific NT fulfillments.”[17] From the preceding examples, it can be observed that Irenaeus NT antitypes carry various levels of specificity. In the case of the scarlet cord, there is a NT referent, but it is not certain that this is a legitimate correspondence. Explicit and repeated recognition by the New Testament authors of such a connection is lacking.

As Richard Davidson highlights, this level of detail moves the biblical interpreter away from the larger macro-types of the Bible,[18] to more speculative and uncertain forms of OT-NT correspondence. Davidson clarifies, “typology does not appear to consist of trivial and extraneous details…but is invariably directly related to Christological-soteriological realities.”[19] When one reads of the red cord in the window, one cannot but help to think that if this is meant to be a type, it is of a kind that is far different than that of Adam to the Second Adam or the Passover Lamb to Christ crucified.

Still, in other passages, Irenaeus typology is not lacking detailed correspondence, it is supposing too much. In Book 5, Irenaeus does well to distinguish “spiritual” and “carnal” men,[20] but in supporting his case he appeals to the levitical system of clean and unclean animals. In his estimation these two kinds of beasts represent the extant duality among humanity. He writes, “For those animals which have the hoof all in one piece easily slip; but those which have it divided are more sure-footed.”[21] He then compares these “slipping” animals to the wayward and ignorant who are in danger of slipping. Surely, this kind of typology is too exacting and too speculative.

Likewise, in another instance he typifies the resurrection of Lazarus as adumbrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is appropriate as far as it goes. Jesus is “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25). Yet, Irenaeus further posits that Lazarus grave clothes were “symbolical of that man who had been bound in sins.”[22] Such a fanciful interpretation borders on allegory. There is nothing in John 11 that warrants that reading, and in this case Irenaeus does not quote from another passage to support this claim.

In another instance, Irenaeus clearly moves into allegory when he compares the axe that fell into the Jordan to the word of God, the tree which caused the loss to the cross of Christ, and the two hands that held the axe handle to the two people of God—Israel and the Gentiles (cf. Eph. 2:11-22). Though he appeals to biblical texts to make his case he is unfortunately importing concepts and ideals that do not fit the historical narrative in 2 Kings. These aberrant interpretations lead to the conclusion, that while explicitly appealing to Scripture, Irenaeus theological method is not without interpretive error.

Typology and Predictive Prophecy

Fourth, Irenaeus interprets the Old Testament as a document filled with predictive prophesies. In Book 4, after a long series of OT citations, he summarizes, “it was not by means of vision alone which were seen, and words which were proclaimed, but also in actual works, that He was beheld by the prophets, in order that through them He might prefigure and show forth future events beforehand.”[23] Clearly, Irenaeus theological view of history and his belief in God’s perfect word assured him that all things written in the past were for the future. In another passage about the Tabernacle and the Exodus, he further demonstrates his eschatological reading of the Old Testament:

These things were done beforehand in a type, and from them was the tabernacle of God constructed; those persons justly receiving them, as I have shown while we were pointed out beforehand in them—[we] who should afterwards serve God by the things of others. For the whole exodus of the people out of others. For the whole exodus of the people of Egypt, which took place under divine guidance, was a type and image of the exodus of the Church which should take place among the Gentiles.[24]

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[17] Ibid., 422.

[18] Graeme Goldsworthy lists 18 different macro-types in his book Gospel Centered Hermeneutics, 253-256. Some of these include creation-new creation; Adam-new humanity; covenant-new covenant; OT worship – eschatological worship; and David throne – kingdom of God.

[19] Richard Davidson, Typology in Scripture, 422.

[20] See Matthew 13:24ff; 25:1-46; John 8:31ff; 1 Corinthians 2:10ff; 1 John 3:6-10.

[21] Irenaeus Adversus haereses 5.8.1-4.

[22] Ibid., 5.13.1.

[23] Ibid., 4.20.12.

[24] Ibid., 4.30.4.

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