A Type in Biblical Terms

by Edmond Lo

People who know how to bike usually remember that very first moment when they were finally able to control the vehicle completely and ride it without any assistance. After struggling badly - and probably suffering a few stumbles and falls along the way - suddenly, the rider finds himself gliding along smoothly and freely on two wheels. It is quite an unbelievable feeling; it’s like a baby bird taking flight into the blue sky for the first time. Taking flight and soaring high was how I felt when I finally found a good handle on reading the Bible typologically. It was pure elation!

In this Sunday’s 2nd reading, Paul teaches that Adam “is the type of the one who was to come” (Romans 5:14). What is a type in biblical terms? Why is it important to Paul?

A type is “a person, place, thing, event, or institution in Scripture that points to a future mystery” (1). The Divine Author of Scripture mysteriously knows how to use various types in the Old Testament to prefigure and point us to the mystery and newness of Christ. This divine method of writing, found only in the divinely written Bible, is called typology. "Typology is what enables us to discern 'in God's works of the Old Covenant prefigurations of what he accomplished in the fullness of time in the person of his incarnate Son' (CCC128)" (2).

It follows that if we really want to understand the Bible well, we must learn how to read it typologically. By seeing the Old Testament types from the newness of the words and deeds of Christ and how they are mysteriously brought to fulfilment in him, we will be able to fully appreciate the power of the prefiguration (cf. CCC 1094). Typology also enables us to see the profound unity of the Old and New Testaments, as St. Augustine has put it so succinctly: “The New Testament is hidden in the Old, and the Old revealed in the New”.
Paul has a convincing explanation of why Adam is “the type of the one who was to come”: “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:14, 17). Just as sin and death entered the world to rule us all because of one man, Adam; justification and life are also gifted to all of us through one person, Jesus. Adam, in other words, prefigures Christ and points us to him. Christ, to put it in another way, is the fulfilment of what his Old Testament type, Adam, prefigures. More than just touting the similarities of the two, Paul sees Jesus as the historical and providential continuation, and completion of what Adam prefigures.

Not only did the New Testament writers read the sacred Scriptures, i.e. the Old Testament books, typologically; they also wrote the New Testament books typologically. We only have enough space for a few examples here in addition to Romans 5:14-15 which we have already discussed, but we can easily identify many more. Here we go:

1 Cor 10:1-2 - Paul refers to the Exodus experience in which the Israelites "were all under the cloud [Holy Spirit] and all passed through the sea [water]" and sees the experience as a type that points to baptism.

John 1:51 - Jesus refers to the stairway connecting heaven and earth in Jacob's vision in Genesis 28:12; he sees it as a type that prefigures him who is the "one mediator between God and the human race" (1 Timothy 2:5).

John 2:4 - In Genesis, Adam called Eve "woman" when he first met Eve. In John's gospel, when Jesus, the New Adam, sees Mary for the first time, he also calls her "woman". This is John's way of telling us that Mary is the New Eve. For John, Eve, the mother of the whole human race, is the type pointing us to Mary, the spiritual mother of the whole human race because her son brought saving grace to us all and gave us new life.

1. Ignatius Catholic Study Bible NT, p.264.
2. Scott Hahn, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, p. 22-23.