Volume 44 - Issue 2

Hebrews and the Typology of Jonathan Edwards

By Drew Hunter


In appreciation for the recent resurgence of interest in biblical theology and typological interpretation, this article considers Jonathan Edwards’s typological interpretive practices and principles. The article examines what Jonathan Edwards’s interpretive reflections on Hebrews reveal about his typological interpretation of the Old Testament. The article then shows the unique contribution that Edwards’s principled typological method makes to current discussions about typology and the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.

For many serious students of Christian Scripture, typological interpretation is either gladly welcomed or firmly rejected.1 Most, therefore, will either lament or rejoice that the subject of typology “has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence of interest among biblical scholars.”2 This revival of attention has surfaced many questions, some new and others old. It also coincides with the contemporary discussion of how to interpret the Bible theologically. The definition and acceptability of typological interpretation remains one of the pressing and debated issues in this conversation. Typological interpretation refers to interpreting a biblical person, event, or institution as an example or pattern that prefigures an ultimate fulfillment in Jesus and the coming of the eschatological age in him.3 Why is this topic so important? Because of its relationship to several other important hermeneutical questions, such as divine authorship of the Bible, the unity of the Bible, exegetical methodology, and the New Testament authors’ use of the Old Testament. Since it touches on such significant and diverse issues, decisions about typological hermeneutics “have decisive consequences for theological hermeneutics.”4

One way to make progress in this discussion is to take a thoughtful glance backward. One of the common themes for recent theological interpreters is that of recovering the early Church fathers and their hermeneutical practices. A reason for this is their well-known (though often criticized) practice of typological interpretation. With the rise of modern biblical scholarship in 1700s came a rejection of the unity of the Bible, which led to a rejection of the legitimacy of typological hermeneutics. However, this was not universal, for some Protestant theologians thoughtfully maintained a form of typological hermeneutics in the midst of this period.5 One such interpreter was the pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards.

It is in the spirit of recovering the past for the present and future that we’ll consider Edwards’s typological interpretive practices and principles. Specifically, this article considers how Jonathan Edwards’s interpretive reflections on Hebrews reveal his typological interpretation of the Old Testament. As a result of this study, we will consider the unique contribution that Edwards’s principled typological method makes to several current and important theological discussions.

1. Exegetical Examples of Typology in Edwards’s Writings on Hebrews

The primary sources for this study of Edwards’s typology are his interpretive reflections on the book of Hebrews. There is certainly a practical reason for limiting our focus in this way: Edwards’s writings are vast, and it would exceed the limits of this article to provide anything that approaches an exhaustive study of his writings. Yet limiting our study to his reflections on Hebrews is strategic for two reasons. First, from a biblical perspective, Hebrews arguably contains more typological discussion than any other biblical writing.6

Second, and most importantly for this study, Edwards considered Hebrews to be the most significant biblical book for the formulation of his own thoughts on typology. Edwards devoted an eight-page private notebook to explaining and defending his view of typology, in which he argues, “the Old Testament state of things was a typical state of things.”7 In it he marshals text after text from Hebrews in support of his conclusions—he refers to Hebrews twice as often as any other biblical book.8 Further, he wrote in a sermon on Hebrews that “the principle design of the whole Epistle” of Hebrews is to “illustrate” aspects of Christ’s words by types from the Old Testament.9 His notes on Hebrews provide us with the clearest window through which to see how Edwards arranges the typological furniture of his hermeneutical house.

Unlike other topics on which he wrote, Edwards’s thoughts and interpretive reflections on typology were never brought together and synthesized into a single, comprehensive work. He did not write a lengthy treatise on typology, nor are his exegetical methods clearly organized into any final form that he intended for publication. Yet Stephen Stein notes that although Edwards “wrote no systematic treatise on hermeneutics … he commented at length on hermeneutical issues in his commentaries and notebooks, his sermons and published works.”10 Therefore, it is to these that we will turn.

Stein organized Edwards’s writings into four categories based on their intended audiences.11 The first and largest category consists of exegetical notes in personal notebooks intended for his private study. Some of these comments are entries in his “Miscellanies” notebook, but most are either in his running list of “Notes on Scripture” (over 500 entries, written between 1723 and 1758 and listed in the order in which he wrote them) or in his “Blank Bible,” which was a KJV Bible interleaved with blank pages for writing (about 10,000 notes, written between 1730 and 1758). The second category is sermons he wrote for various congregations, 1,200 of which remain today. Third, Edwards left various books and treatises intended for publication that often include biblical exegesis. Fourth, he left several writings incomplete, which he intended to finish for future publication.

As we scan this vast corpus of writings, we find many comments on Hebrews that give a window into Edwards’s view of typology. For our purposes, we will organize his typological reflections on Hebrews into two categories. This first step consists of exegetical examples from texts that he viewed as typological. The second will then move a step beyond this to Edwards’s theoretical principles of interpretation.

We begin by considering several places where Edwards’s reflection on Hebrews provides us with exegetical examples of his typological interpretation. These examples provide a window into his typological hermeneutics.

1.1. The Typology of Sacrifices and Priesthood

Sacrifice and priesthood are two of the most prominent themes in Hebrews. Therefore, it is likely no coincidence that these are also the most prominent typological examples in Edwards’s reflections on this book. In particular, we’ll focus on Edwards’s reflections on Hebrews 9. In a sermon from this chapter Edwards wrote that the design of the entirety of Hebrews 9 “is to explain these glorious mysteries of Christ’s priesthood, mediation, satisfaction, and sacrifice, and to illustrate them by types of them in the Mosaical Dispensation.”12 Edwards focused specifically on Christ’s sacrifice and priesthood.

First, in a sermon on Hebrews 9:12 titled, “Christ’s Sacrifice,” he gave specific attention to the typology of sacrifice later in this same sermon. He wrote, “There always from the very first was such a thing as sacrificing in the world.”13 Edwards then made the link to Christ explicit: “Then came the Great Sacrifice himself into the world, the end and antitype of all these things, who was the true sacrifice.”14 And again, “this sacrifice [of Christ] is illustrated by its types that were abolished by this, its antitype.”15 Taking his cue from Hebrews, Edwards believed that the sacrifices in the OT were types that pointed forward to the antitypical “true” and “great” sacrifice of Christ.

Edwards later wrote a sermon on Hebrews 9:13–14 which filled out his view of the typology of sacrifice: he claimed that all sacrifices—that of bulls, goats, calves, kids, lambs, sparrows, and turtle doves—pointed to Christ and are fulfilled in him.16 What he meant by “pointed to” and “fulfilled” is clearly typological, for he wrote that they “represent something in Christ” and that “they are all typical and Christ’s sacrifice is the antitype of them.”17

Second, Edwards also explained his typological view of the priesthood. Referring to the priesthood of Melchizedek and all the priests in the order of Aaron he states, he stated, “All were types of the [Christ] the Great high Priest.”18 From Hebrews, Edwards argued that every priest typologically pointed to Jesus Christ.

1.2. The Typological Aspects of the Sacrificial System

Edwards also viewed other aspects of the sacrificial system as typological. In his sermon on Hebrews 9:13–14, Edwards considered the altars of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, together with all that was in the tabernacle, as typological. The “alter of burnt offering,” Edwards argued, “was a type of the divine nature of Christ.”19 In one of his “Notes on Scripture” (#285), he appealed to the Hebrews author’s statement in 10:20, which refers to “the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” He concluded that “typical ordinances of the Old Testament are in Scripture represented as Christ’s flesh,” specifically noting that “the veil signified the flesh of Christ (Hebrews 10:20).”20

He also considered the whole ceremonial law and the things included within it as types. He wrote in his second sermon on Hebrews 12:22–24 that these things are “representing and shadowing forth the Redemption of [Christ].”21 Later in the same sermon he wrote that Moses was the “typical mediator” of the covenant with God’s people who represents Christ.22

1.3. The Typology of Other Institutions

Thus far, we’ve considered examples that have the Israel’s cultic system in view. Three other examples follow that demonstrate a broader understanding of typology. First, Edwards provided an example of a type that pointed to the New Testament church. Within a sermon series on Hebrews 12:22–24, he equated the church with “God’s Jerusalem” and stated that it is the antitype of the “Jerusalem of old.”23 In other words, the city of Jerusalem from the Old Testament was a type of the true Jerusalem (i.e., “God’s Jerusalem”), which is the church.

Second, Edwards made a typological connection between Mt. Sinai and God’s presence in heaven, following from his understanding of Hebrews 8:5. Edwards explained that Moses’s lengthy stay on Mt. Sinai to receive the law pointed beyond itself. “That mount,” wrote Edwards, “when Moses was in it with God, typified heaven, as the Apostle teaches (Hebrews 8:5).”24 He also wrote, reflecting on Moses’s death in Deuteronomy 32:50, “Tis evident that heaven is sometimes typified by the top of the mount, by Hebrews 8:5 compared with Hebrews 9:23.”25 In both cases, he appealed to the Hebrews author’s argument in Hebrews 8:5 for support. In other words, Edwards is intentionally tethering his typological reflections on the Old Testament to the book of Hebrews.

Finally, Edwards reflected on the typological theme of rest that runs through the storyline of the Bible. In a lengthy note on the theme of rest in Isaiah (#503), he linked this rest to that which Christ gives in Hebrews 4:8–10. From here, he tied it backwards to the salvation-rest of Israel in Exodus. He noted that the previous Exodus salvation pointed forward to a greater salvation and rest that the Messiah was to bring. One of the ways that he supported this connection was through noting that there were various “types and symbols of his presence” such as the tabernacle, ark, and cloud of glory.26

2. Theoretical Principles of Typology in Edwards’s Writings on Hebrews

The examples above raise several important questions: With what hermeneutical principles did Edwards operate? Was he conscious of his principles? Did he have any controls to his typological reflections? Thankfully, we do not need to speculate at this point; Edwards left behind many theoretical reflections on typology. Such principles are found in some of his exegetical notes such as his “Blank Bible” and “Notes on Scripture,” but they are primarily developed in “Types” and “Types of the Messiah,” two works that Edwards probably intended to integrate into a larger manuscript for future publication on the topic. These writings (and a few others) provide the theoretical principles that underpin the exegetical examples above. As Lowance Jr. observes, “doctrinal statements contain theoretical declarations that are applied elsewhere in the Edwards canon.”27 In other words, Edwards held theoretical principles that underpinned his exegetical reflections. What are these principles? We find six principles of Edwards’s typological understanding of the Bible.

2.1. Principle #1: There Is Continuity and Discontinuity Between Type and Antitype

For Edwards, types and antitypes are related to, but not identical with, one another. Types and antitypes have both similarities and differences. He explained this principle in two different places, both of which involve reflections on Hebrews 10:1, which says, “The law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.” First, in his note on Hebrews 1:3 in the Blank Bible, he wrote that Jesus is the “express image” of God and is thus “an image that exactly answers the original” and is of equal value.28 He then contrasted this with the relationship of types to antitypes. He drew attention to the statement in Hebrews 10:1 that says types are not the very image of the things. Thus, in contrast to the relationship of Jesus to God, the types are not equivalent in value or accomplishment. For “if they had been the very image exactly answerable,” he argued, “they would have been equivalent, and might have answered the same purpose.”29

Second, he made this same point from a different angle. Commenting on Hebrews 10:1, he wrote, “the shadow of a thing is an exceeding imperfect representation of it, and yet has such a resemblance that it has a most evident relation to the thing, of which it is the shadow.”30 Thus, according to his reading of Hebrews 10:1, there is continuity and discontinuity between type and antitype—a “resemblance” between the two, but an “exceeding imperfect” one.

2.2. Principle #2: The Purpose of a Type Is to Teach About Christ and “Gospel Things”

Types are not aimless, pointing to any number of disconnected objects. Edwards did not find types that point to various early church figures, locations, or events in post-biblical world history. He operated with the principle that types always and only point to spiritual things related to Christ and the gospel. We see this point in two steps.

First, Edwards argued that types are meant to teach about antitypes. He explained this point in his short notebook labeled, “Types.” Hebrews 8:2–5 contrasts the things that Moses was to make according to a heavenly pattern with the “true tabernacle” that Jesus entered. In light of this, Edwards viewed all that was typical under Moses as being given for us to consider. His argument reveals his principle: “For what end is a type or picture, but to give some knowledge of the antitype or thing painted?”31 The implied answer is, of course, that there are no types given without the purpose of teaching about the antitype.

But what is specifically taught? This leads us to the second step: For Edwards, the antitype is always related to Christ and “gospel things” of the New Testament age. He reflected on Hebrews 9:8–11, in which the author of Hebrews notes that certain gifts and sacrifices were given “until the time of reformation” (9:10), and that “Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come.” Edwards noted that such sacrifices and washings and regulations “were signs for that time then present, of good things to come.”32 He added further weight to his point by quoting in full from Hebrews 9:22–24; 10:1; 11:19, and 13:11–13. He further clarified this point elsewhere: As shadows, the types cannot be fully understood until light is shone on them. In other words, “the light that was plainly to reveal the gospel things came after Christ, the substance of all ancient types.”33 According to Edwards, when Christ came light shone backward on shadowy types to reveal “gospel things.” And these “gospel things” that have arrived in Christ are the substance of not just some, but all ancient types.

2.3. Principles #3: There Are More Types in the Old Testament than the New Testament Interprets

It is evident from what we’ve seen that that Edwards viewed the Old Testament as filled with types. He considers this principle present in Hebrews 7, where even the Old Testament’s silence about Melchizedek’s birth and death are typological. “If so small things in Scripture are typical,” he reasoned, “it is rational to suppose that Scripture abounds in types.”34 More specifically, he believed that the New Testament does not mention or interpret all of the Old Testament types.

Edwards devoted three entries in his “Miscellanies” notebook to typology. The explicit purpose of one of these was to make a defense of this very point, and to do so from the book of Hebrews. From Hebrews 9:5, he argued that there are more types in the OT than the NT interprets: “That some things in the Old Testament are types of gospel things and are so intended for our instruction, which are nowhere explained in the New Testament, is evident by Hebrews 9:4–5.”35 He drilled into the end of verse 5, wherein the Hebrews author began to list typological aspects of the tabernacle, but then stopped short and wrote, “which things we cannot now speak particularly.” Edward took this phrase to mean that the author of Hebrews believed there were many typological things to say, and that he could go on to explain all of their typological significance, but he must refrain at that point. Hence, Edwards immediately followed the verse with the paraphrase, “i.e. we cannot now particularly explain what gospel or heavenly things they signified.”36

In “Types of the Messiah,” he wrote that this short phrase of Hebrews 9:5 “proves, evidently that many things in the tabernacle were typical … which signification is not explained to us in Scripture.”37 In other words, the author of Hebrews believed that many aspects of the temple were typological, but he simply didn’t think this letter was the time to explain them.38

One of the clearest statements of this point came in the conclusion to his short notebook on typology. He wrote that it is “unreasonable” to say that we cannot recognize types unless the Scripture is explicit about them, for the Bible itself “is plain that innumerable other things are types that are not interpreted in Scripture (all the ordinances of the Law are all shadows of good things to come).”39 Thus, Edwards believed that interpreters have freedom to see more types in the Old Testament than the New Testament explicitly identifies.

2.4. Principle #4: Types Can Be Understood apart from Any NT Interpretation

Following from the previous point, the Old Testament is not only filled with types, but they can and should be interpreted even apart from any clear explanation from the New Testament. Edwards found it unreasonable to assume that those who first received the types could not at all understand them. Following a running list of five passages from Hebrews 8–13, he concluded that the Old Testament believers were to able know the fulfillment of all the types. He argued that if we could not understand any types except for those that the New Testament explicitly explained, then God’s people under the Old Testament “were secluded from ever using their understanding to search into the meaning of the types given to [them].”40

He also reflected on Hebrews 9:1–4. He quoted the list of types that the author of Hebrews could not speak in detail about, and then he asked, “But are these types all in vain, and must we never receive the instruction that is held forth because the Apostle did not speak of [them] particularly?”41 The tone of these statements communicates something of his bewilderment at those who would miss this point from Hebrews.

This all follows from the second principle above (i.e., the purpose of types is to teach about Christ and “gospel things”), for if all types were given in order to instruct, then one ought to expect that they are all understandable. “Did God give to hold forth to us spiritual things? And yet, is it presumption for us to endeavor to see what spiritual things are held forth in them?”42 Far from presumptuous, Edwards thought it our obligation to seek understanding. “If they were for our instruction,” he stated, “then we must endeavor to understand them, even those that are nowhere explained in Scripture.”43

Edwards was carefully nuanced on this point. He certainly did not want to give any ground to those who would say that God’s people are incapable of understanding types that are not explained in Scripture. Nevertheless, he also believed that it was more difficult to perceive the instruction of types in the Old Testament time compared with the New. “The types of the Old Testament were given much more for our instruction under the New Testament,” he wrote, “for they understood little, but we are under vastly greater advantage to understand them than they.”44 Here’s the nuance: All of God’s people should be able to understand the types, and yet they are more easily understood after the realities have come.

2.5. Principle #5: The Types Should Only Be Interpreted with Proper Warrant

The previous principle raises an important question, and one that interpreters commonly ask today: “What are the controls?” In order to guard against fanciful interpretations, some have argued that the only types we can identify are those explicitly referenced in the New Testament. Edwards steered a middle course based on his reading of Hebrews 8:4–5. He first pressed for caution: “Persons ought to be exceeding careful in interpreting of types, that they don’t give way to a wild fancy.”45 But this caution did not lead him to the other extreme. Rather, he wanted interpreters “not to fix an interpretation unless warranted by some hint in the New Testament of its being the true interpretation, or a lively figure and representation contained or warranted by an analogy to other types that we interpret on sure grounds.”46

He used Hebrews 8:4–5 to illustrate this because the author wrote that Moses was told to make all things related to the tabernacle according to the pattern. It was not just the tabernacle that was typical (on the one hand), nor was everything imaginable typical (on the other). Instead, everything related to the tabernacle was typological. In light of this, we see that Edwards did not affirm anything and everything as a potential type, yet he did identify all that was related to the tabernacle as typological. We also see that Edwards affirmed that although we may search out more types than the New Testament explicitly mentioned, yet our interpretations must have warrant—in this case, our proposed types must have some analogy with the types that were specifically noted in connection to the tabernacle. Thus, Edwards demonstrated a carefully nuanced perspective on identifying types in Scripture.

2.6. Principle #6: The Failure to Understand Types is the Fault of the Interpreter

This final principle comes as a corollary to the previous ones: Because the types are given to instruct God’s people (principle #2), and because we are expected to understand them even apart from an explicit New Testament explanation (principle #4), the readers are only to blame if they do not understand. This appears to be his point when he drew a parallel between typology and Jesus’ parables. Just as Jesus expected his disciples to understand the parables without explication, people should understand types without explication. Hebrews 5 informed this principle for him: “Christ blames the Jews and disciples that they don’t understand his parables, that were made up of types without explication.” Edwards supported this claim with the reference, “Matthew 13:15, ‘Their ears are dull of hearing,’ compared with Hebrews 5:10–12.”47 He continued, “Yea, Christ blames the disciples that they did not understand the types of the Old Testament without his explaining them.”48 Because of the threat of being dull of hearing according to Hebrews 5, typological interpretation is not merely an interpretive game for Edwards. It was not a fad or a mere interpretive interest. It was a matter of sanctification. God has given us types to understand, and he expects us to search diligently to understand them. If we fail to see them, it is due to our dullness of hearing.

3. The Significance of Edwards’s Typological Interpretation for Today

Jonathan Edwards’s interpretive methods and conclusions have often either been neglected or unappreciated. His exegetical practices—including his view of typology—have not been clearly understood or well served in scholarship up to this point.49 While some early admirers appreciated Edwards’s interpretation of the Bible, for the most part his biblical interpretation “has had virtually no effect on succeeding generations.”50 Regardless of the numerous reasons for this, we must now ask the question: What can theological interpreters appreciate or appropriate from Edwards’s typological methods? Here are several ways that Edwards helps us with the theory and practice of typological interpretation today.

3.1. Principled Typological Interpretation

Edwards serves exegetes and theological interpreters as a model of thoughtful and principled typological interpretation. His methods should contribute to our recent discussions about typology, biblical theology, and the theological interpretation of Scripture.

Some evangelical scholars are leery of Edwards’s typology because he viewed not only the Old Testament but also all of nature as typological.51 Furthermore, it is true that some of Edward’s typological examples may seem a bit uncontrolled to recent interpreters. In Stein’s view, “For Edwards the gap between typology and allegory was small and the step-over easy. His hermeneutical category of the spiritual sense makes it impossible to say when typology ends and allegory begins.”52 However, we should lament a wholesale dismissal of his hermeneutic; this essay demonstrates that he had a very thoughtful and nuanced view of typology. Furthermore, Edwards was not an allegorist. Allegory is not concerned with understanding a text in its historical and literary context. In contrast to allegory, typology is always concerned with the historical and contextual meaning of texts.53 While allegory disregards an event’s historical and literary context and therefore reads into texts meanings that are not there, typology pays proper attention to a text’s history and context, and thus draws out and develops its meaning rather than contradict it.54

While the language Edwards used to describe typology differs from our use today, the content of his principles is similar. Therefore, since we’ve discerned Edwards’s principles, we are now able to see how they may confirm or correct our own thinking. Consider, for example, the first principle above, which affirmed that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the type and antitype. Translated into recent terminology, Edwards affirms that there is both “correspondence and escalation” in typology.

Edwards is also a model for us with his balance of the fourth and fifth principles. Edwards affirmed that there are more types in the Old Testament than the New Testament explicitly affirms (principle #4), and yet he also insisted that we need proper warrant in order to affirm something as a type (principle #5). This shows that Edwards strove for a balanced middle way between those who “give way to a wild fancy” (a danger of holding to principle #4 without principle #5) and others who will not admit any other types than what is explicitly referenced in the New Testament (a danger of holding to principle #5 without principle #4).

How does this balanced perspective help us today? Edwards shows us that the New Testament gives the interpreter both freedom and constraint. It gives us freedom because, as Edwards showed, the author of Hebrews acknowledges that there are more types than are explicitly noted as such in the New Testament. Thus, we have freedom to identify more types than the New Testament directly identifies. Yet this also provides constraint because our interpretation does not have warrant unless we find an analogy made between our proposed type and another type that is more clearly supported in the New Testament. This offers nuanced and controlled guidance for discerning types throughout Scripture.

3.2. The Use of the Old Testament in the New Testament

Edwards also contributes to a related discussion about the question of whether we should follow the New Testament’s hermeneutical methods or limit ourselves to their conclusions. Jesus and the New Testament authors repeatedly quote, echo, and allude to Old Testament texts. The key question is: Are the New Testament author’s interpretive practices a legitimate pattern for us to follow?

There are essentially three options.55 (1) We may view the New Testament authors’ hermeneutical methods as flawed, and therefore reject those methods while keeping their conclusions. Those who embrace this view think that the New Testament authors sometimes had a misguided interpretation of the Old Testament—they used allegory and quoted the Old Testament texts out of context. Nevertheless, theologically conservative interpreters will still affirm that the New Testament authors’ writings were inspired, thus we should accept their assertions without adopting their methods. Thus, Richard Longenecker concludes, “Christians today are committed to the apostolic faith and doctrine of the New Testament, but not necessarily to the apostolic exegetical practices as detailed for us in the New Testament.”56 (2) We may view the New Testament authors’ hermeneutical methods as flawed, and yet follow those methods anyhow. Some less theologically conservative interpreters think that the NT authors had misguided and flawed interpretive practices, yet we may still follow their flawed methods. (3) We may view the New Testament author’s hermeneutical methods as faithful, and therefore follow those methods. This view is settled between the middle of the other two. These interpreters consider the New Testament authors to have both trustworthy conclusions and exegesis that is consistent with the Old Testament historical and contextual meaning. For example, G. K. Beale argues that Jesus and the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament texts within a broad redemptive-historical framework and within their immediate literary and canonical contexts.57 He argues that typological interpretation pervades the entire Bible and should be normative for us today.

Jonathan Edwards’s work with Hebrews demonstrates that he fits in this third and middle perspective. In formulating typological principles, we observed how Edwards consistently appealed not just to the Hebrews texts, but also to the Hebrews author’s method of typological interpretation. Edwards operated with principle that the author of Hebrews had a trustworthy typological method that we should emulate. He also operated with the principle that the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament within a redemptive-historical framework. His principles that guided his approach still make helpful contributions to the discussion today.

3.3. A Unique Response to Modern Criticism

Edwards also serves theological interpreters as a model of an early responder to modern biblical criticism, and as one who did so by demonstrating the typology of the Bible. First, we can appreciate Edwards in the same way that we do other pre-critical interpreters. Edwards’s typological interpretation aligns him with them since this way of reading the Bible is “viewed as the most important interpretive strategy for early Christianity.”58 Stephen Stein notes that Edwards’s interpretive method practiced throughout his lifetime “reflected” and “conforms closely” to the pre-critical method.59

Second, however, Edwards was not merely pre-critical; he was also engaged in modern scholarship. While his typology corresponds to the pre-critical methods, we should not classify him as a pre-critical writer, not least because he is not chronologically pre-critical. Doug Sweeney notes, “Despite his reputation as a ‘pre-critical’ reader, or ‘pre-modern’ thinker, he was fully apprised of recent trends in modern critical thought.”60 In fact, Edwards voraciously appropriated much of critical scholarship so that he could respond to it from a biblical perspective. Stein notes that Edwards “was not part of any emergent school of historical criticism,” and that he was actually “responding to the transitional age in his view on the authority of Scripture.”61

This historical context allows us to see his typological method with an intriguing new lens—we see that Edwards worked out his principles of typological exegesis in order to defend the authority of Scripture. He sought to mount a “formidable defense of typological interpretation, and, in fact, extend[ing] its range and application.”62 Edwards remains for us, then, a unique ally in biblical interpretation. We appreciate Edwards as a thoughtful response to modern criticism. He remained a classic example of one who was committed to engaging with all scholarly biblical endeavors, appropriating where able and responding where needed.

3.4. The Unity of the Bible as an Apologetic for Its Divine Authorship

What would his defense of typology have looked like? For what purpose would he publish it? Although we cannot know for sure, clues indicate that Edwards was writing personally on typology in order to defend the remarkable unity of the canon of Scripture, thus defending its divine authorship.

It appears that he was working on this just prior to his untimely death. When notified of his election as president of Princeton, Edwards expressed reluctance to oblige because it would interfere with his writing, which he said had “swallowed up my mind, and been the chief entertainment and delight of my life.”63 He wrote of two particular “great works” that he “had long on [his] mind and heart.”64 The first, A History of the Work of Redemption, would be “a body of divinity in an entire new method, being thrown into the form of an history.”65 The second, The Harmony of the Old and New Testaments, would have three parts: prophecies of the Messiah, types of the Old Testament, and doctrine. Much of the typological writings examined in this article would likely be integrated into these works. He began them as private meditations for his personal delight and study, but later began to develop them with these wider purposes in mind.

But what apologetic function would these works serve? During this same time period, Edwards was vigorously reading and copying the works of particularly important intellectual authors in Europe (such as John Locke and David Hume). According to Sweeney, this reveals that one of the aims of his scholarly labors was dealing with the deist threat.66 The trend in scholarship was to reject the supernatural view of the world and Bible. Thus, in addition to sheer personal delight in biblical studies, Edwards was likely formulating and applying his typological principles in order to demonstrate the unity of Scripture and divine authorship. Showing the intrinsic coherence and aesthetic beauty of Scripture was one way in which he would respond to those who treat the Bible as a merely human and historical text.

In this way, Edwards was reacting to scholarly trends quite similar to those that current theological interpreters are responding to. In our current time evangelical interpreters must respond to modern critical and rational views of the Bible that treat it as a merely human book.67 It is also interesting to consider that Edward’s likely planned to use his typological notes in order to engage modern critical scholarship regarding the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. In other unfinished works on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, he sought to demonstrate that the unitary features of the narrative demonstrate a single author. Edwards appropriated the new historical methods and nevertheless defended the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch with these very methods.68 This practice has striking similarities to that of recent theological interpreters with respect to critical methodology.

Sweeney notes, “In an era characterized by the rapid spread of biblical criticism, theological skepticism and religious minimalism, Edwards demonstrated a robust faith in Scripture’s credibility, expounding it with confidence in traditional Christian methods.”69 His goal was to demonstrate that the Bible was a unique God-given book.”70 We can learn from Edwards on this point. The aesthetic beauty and unity of the Bible can serve as a strong apologetic for the divine authorship of the Bible in our day. The recent publications of studies on biblical theology demonstrate the profound unity of the Bible. Thus, as we trace the unified story and central themes that cut across the canon, we not only gain an understanding of the content of the Bible; we’re also strengthened in our confidence in its divine origin.

3.5. The Proper Attitude of a Biblical Scholar

Finally, Edwards’s typological principles demonstrate that he was a scholar with theological integrity. He did not leave his faith out of his interpretive practices and publications. The sixth hermeneutical principle above—that the failure to understand types is the fault of the interpreter—appears to be one that he took to heart. If one fails to understand the meaning of types in Scripture, he or she must be, according to Hebrews 5:12–14, “dull of hearing.”71 All biblical and theological scholars would do well to join Edwards in heeding this point.

In a time (as today) when many scholars disdained any hermeneutical method that took the divine authorship of Scripture seriously, Edwards submitted himself to the Bible as God’s word. Marsden explains that he had this attitude because he “took so seriously the immensity of the gap between the ways of the infinite and eternal God and the limits of human understanding,” and so “he was willing to make the best of the biblical accounts, as counterintuitive as they might sometimes seem.”72 This is true, and yet Edwards also demonstrated that typology is actually the most rationally consistent view of the Bible. Nevertheless, he knew that he would not persuade all. In his “Types” notebook—the one in which he reflected on typology from Hebrews—he wrote, “I expect by very ridicule and contempt to be called a man of a very fruitful brain and copious fancy, but they are welcome to it.”73 This is the mindset of one who loves the praise of God more than the praise of men; an example to be followed. The determining factor for whether or not biblical interpreters embrace the legitimacy of typology must ultimately be based upon what is true, rather than what is least likely to be ridiculed among other scholars.

4. Conclusion

What would Jonathan Edwards publish, were he alive today, related to current discussions about typology, the use of the Old Testament in the New, and other conversations related to biblical theology? This article has suggested at least three ways that Edwards would influence these conversations: (1) He would probably appeal to his principled typological method, (2) he would argue that we should follow the hermeneutics of the New Testament authors, and (3) he would commend Hebrews as a primary model for our typological interpretive practice.

Although he is not here to update and submit his writings to the conversation, we can still benefit from his work. A fresh interaction with Edwards’s typological interpretations can make several contributions to current discussions on Scripture and hermeneutics. And we also find in him a model of a pastor-theologian who delighted in and submitted to the Bible as a divinely authored, aesthetically beautiful, and unified work that points us to Christ and “gospel things.”

[1] I am grateful to Dr. Dane Ortlund and Dr. Daniel Treier for their helpful comments and feedback on an early draft of this article.

[2] Gordon Hugenberger makes this comment over twenty years ago in his essay, “Introductory Notes on Typology,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 331. The interest continues today.

[3] This definition is essentially consistent with Daniel J. Treier, “Typology,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 824. Similarly, Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God: A Study of the Basis of Typology in the Old Testament,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 366.

[4] Treier, “Typology,” 823.

[5] Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). 47.

[6] Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1987), 118. Poythress claims that Hebrews is the most important text to consider in a discussion of typology and the relationship of the OT and NT.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, “Types,” in Typological Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson, Mason I. Lowance Jr., and David H. Watters, The Works of Jonathan Edwards 11 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 146 (citations of Edwards’s works are hereafter abbreviated WJE). The context of Edwards’s use of the word “typical” indicates that this word is equivalent to what most today would call “typological.”

[8] “Types,” WJE 11:146–53. The Hebrews references total 20 times, many of which are full quotes. Second to this is 1 Corinthians at 10 occurrences, with only a few others minimally scattered throughout.

[9] “Christ’s Sacrifice,” WJE 10:595.

[10] Stephen Stein, “Quest for the Spiritual Sense: The Biblical Hermeneutics of Jonathan Edwards,” HTR 70 (1977): 107.

[11] In what follows, Stephen Stein, “The Spirit and the Word: Jonathan Edwards and Scriptural Exegesis,” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 121–22.

[12] WJE 10:595.

[13] WJE 10:594. It is important to note that his typology extends beyond the biblical text into what has been labeled “natural typology” in this section as well. He not only views OT sacrifices as types, but even all pagan sacrifices as such.

[14] WJE 10:595.

[15] WJE 10:595.

[16] “Heb. 9:13–14,” WJE 53:L.15v.

[17] WJE 53:L.16r.–16v.

[18] WJE 53:L.16v.

[19] WJE 53:L.10v

[20] WJE 15:246

[21] “Heb. 12:22–24 (f),” WJE 55:9. For Edwards, “representing” and especially “shadowing” are clearly typological terms.

[22] WJE 55:13.

[23] “Heb. 12:22–24 (b),” WJE 55:5.

[24] WJE 15:82.

[25] WJE 15:82

[26] WJE 15:603–5.

[27] Mason I. Lowance Jr., “Editor’s Introduction to ‘Types of the Messiah,’” WJE 11:159.

[28] “Blank Bible,” WJE 24:1137.

[29] WJE 24:1137.

[30] WJE 15:248.

[31] WJE 11:148.

[32] WJE 11:149.

[33] WJE 15:247.

[34] “Types,” WJE 11:151. The same point is made in his work, “Types of the Messiah,” WJE 11:322.

[35] “Misc. 1139: Why the Creation of the World Was Committed to Christ,” WJE 20:516.

[36] WJE 20:516. From this Edwards text, Stein wrongly claims that he did not think that all the things in the OT could be understood in their typological sense. He writes, “one must be reminded that Edwards himself insisted that some types remain unclear, reasoning that ‘we cannot now particularly explain what gospel and heavenly things they signified’” (Stein, “Quest for the Spiritual Sense,” 112). But this is precisely the opposite of the point Edwards is trying to make here. First, the sentence quoted is not a direct expression of Edwards’s own thoughts about typology, but is a paraphrase of Hebrews 9:5—one that he agrees with, to be sure. But this paraphrase reveals that Edwards thinks the Hebrews author did, in fact, clearly understand the types, but he simply didn’t have the time to explain them. The other examples that follow make this point clear.

[37] WJE 11:323.

[38] Cf. WJE 11:149, 154.

[39] WJE 11:152.

[40] WJE 11:150.

[41] WJE 11:149.

[42] WJE 11:149.

[43] WJE 11:323.

[44] WJE 11:149.

[45] WJE 11:148.

[46] WJE 11:148.

[47] WJE 11:147.

[48] WJE 11:147.

[49] Sweeney notes that there has been a widespread neglect of Edwards’s exegetical writings due to a preoccupation with his roles in America’s “public” life. Thus, “we have neglected the scholarly work he took most seriously.” See Douglas Sweeney, ‘“Longing for More and More of It’? The Strange Career of Jonathan Edwards’s Exegetical Exertions,” in Jonathan Edwards at 300: Essays on the Tercentenary of His Birth, ed. Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Caleb H. D. Maskell (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005), 26.

[50] Robert Brown, “The Sacred and the Profane Connected: Edwards, the Bible, and Intellectual Culture,” in Jonathan Edwards at 300: Essays on the Tercentenary of His Birth, ed. Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema, and Caleb H. D. Maskell (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1995), 39.

[51] Hugenberger lists this as one of the reasons for caution about confusing typology with allegory (“Introductory Notes on Typology,” 335–36).

[52] Stein, “Spiritual Sense,” 112.

[53] Francis Foulkes, “The Acts of God,” 367.

[54] G. K. Beale, “Positive Answer to the Question Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 395.

[55] These options are derived from Treier, “Typology,” 825.

[56] Richard Longenecker, “Negative Answer to the Question ‘Who Is the Prophet Talking About?’ Some Reflections on the New Testament’s Use of the Old,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 385.

[57] Beale, “Positive Answer to the Question,” 394, 400.

[58] Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation, 45.

[59] Stephen Stein, “The Spirit and the Word: Jonathan Edwards and Scriptural Exegesis” in Jonathan Edwards and the American Experience, ed. Nathan O. Hatch and Harry S. Stout (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 119.

[60] Douglas Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 95.

[61] Stein, “The Spirit and the Word,” 119.

[62] Stein, “The Spirit and the Word,” 119

[63] Jonathan Edwards, A Jonathan Edwards Reader, ed. John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 322.

[64] Edwards, A Jonathan Edwards Reader, 322.

[65] Edwards, A Jonathan Edwards Reader, 322–23.

[66] Douglas Sweeney, “Introduction,” WJE 23 :13.

[67] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Introduction,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 20.

[68] Brown, “The Sacred and the Profane Connected,” 42.

[69] Sweeney, Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word, 95.

[70] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 481.

[71] Treier similarly notes, “such genuine connections may not always be convincing to those without eyes of faith” (Introducing Theological Interpretation, 49.)

[72] Marsden, A Life, 481.

[73] WJE 11:152.

Drew Hunter

Drew Hunter is the teaching pastor of Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana.

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