*George Ophoff was Professor of Old Testament Studies in the Protestant Reformed Seminary in its early days. Reprinted here are articles, slightly edited, which Ophoff wrote at that time for the Standard Bearer.

God—so the author of the epistle to the Hebrews sets out—God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past unto the fathers by the prophets….

The passage asserts that the speech of God varied as to manner. Not always did God avail Himself of the word. It pleased Him often to convey His thoughts to man by means of transactions. The sacrificial system of the old dispensation, for example, was so many transactions which God used to transport thought from His own consciousness into the consciousness of man. These sacrificial rites performed a double service: they were signs signifying certain principles or ethical-spiritual truths; and these signs, together with the matters signified, were made to serve as shadows (Paul) or types of good things to come.

This is the field which we desire to explore. To some of these types we wish to attend in a series of articles.

What Is a Type?

We acknowledge that we do not enter an uninvestigated and hence unknown province. From the beginning of the Christian era, theologians have studied the types of Scripture. But only recently was there an attempt made to discover the principles by which those who explore the typology of Scripture should permit themselves to be guided. Consequently, the typological views of the theologians of the first half of our Christian era are of doubtful value.

The commentaries of the Greek fathers are noted for their excessive typical and allegorical explanations of Scripture. We must distinguish, in this connection, between an allegory and a type. An allegory is a narrative related for the purpose of representing a higher truth. It is of no importance whatever whether the narrator is relating the events as they literally happened or not. In either case the narrative will serve its purpose. The parable of the prodigal son is an illustration of this. Jesus’ purpose was to present to the minds of His hearers a higher truth, viz., that Christ receives with open arms, as it were, the penitent sinner who returns to Him seeking pardon. In projecting this higher truth, Christ availed Himself not of a historical event (a type), but merely of certain images or concepts, which the parable presented to the minds of His hearers. What is the mental picture which the parable suspends before our mind’s eye? We see, in our imagination, the image or the picture of a disgruntled son withdrawing himself from under the non-oppressive yoke of a kind father. That son, so the picture informs us, goes traveling and finally settles in a strange land where he recklessly spends his substance and consequently comes to grief. Then that son, according to the picture, comes to himself, he admits his guilt. In contriteness of heart he returns to his father, who is awaiting his coming. The father receives and pardons him and restores him to his former position.

By means of this picture Jesus lets His disciples see that the triune God is most ready to pardon the penitent. It was not Christ’s purpose to relate a past event, and hence it need not be maintained that the events related had ever happened as presented. What must be embraced is the word-picture, together with the higher truth signified. Doing this, we are doing full justice to the sacred text.

We wish to add that we are well aware of the fact that the parable of the prodigal son is, properly, a parable and not an allegory. There is a difference between the two. But the one differs from the other in form only and not in essence. In an allegory, the thing signifying and the thing signified are fused together. “I am the door” (John 10) is an allegory. In a parable, the thing signifying and the thing signified are kept distinct and placed side by side. In the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) the thing signified, “I say unto you that joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance,” is placed alongside of the thing signified, viz., the parable proper.

When we assert that the parable or the allegory is not meant to be a faithful and precise record of past events we do not mean to say that the allegorizer does not derive his materials from life. He does. And he can do so because the things of the lower realms of life are meant to be and actually are images of things of the higher realm. But these materials the allegorizer may modify and reconstruct to suit his purpose. The parable and the allegory are based on life.

What now is a type? Let it suffice for the present to say that the type of Scripture is a historical event or transaction or phenomenon which God caused to appear for the purpose of signifying by it a higher truth, or a future event, or an object of a higher province. In a parable or an allegory, it is more or less an invention of the mind that is being used to signify the higher truth. In a type, it is a historical fact, event, or transaction, as it actually happened, that signifies the higher truth.

Ancient Greek Church Fathers on Types

Now, the Greek fathers would allegorize the types of Scripture and the facts and events recorded in Holy Writ as well. Especially was the church father Origen wont to do so. Bearing in mind the above distinctions it is plain what this means. It means that Origen would frequently discover in the sacred text an ethereal or more heavenly meaning and thereupon dismissing as of little consequence the truth or reality of the matters recorded. Fairbairn adduces a few specimens of this mode of exposition. Origan treats Abraham’s marriage with Keturah in the following fashion:

There is no end to wisdom and old age sets no bounds to improvement in knowledge. The death of Sarah is to be understood as the perfecting of virtue. But he who has attained to a consummate and perfect virtue, must always be employed in some kind of learning—which learning is called by the divine word his wife. Abraham, therefore, when an old man, and his body in a manner dead, took Keturah to wife. I think it was better, according to the exposition we follow, that his wife should have been received when his body was dead, and his members were mortified. For we have a greater capacity for wisdom when we bear about the dying of Christ in our mortal bodies. Then Keturah, whom he married in his old age, is by interpretation incense or sweet odor. For, he said, even as Paul said, “We are a sweet savor of Christ.” Sin is a foul and putrid thing; but if any of you in whom this no longer dwells, have the fragrance of righteousness, the sweetness of mercy, and by prayer continually offer up incense to God, ye also have taken Keturah to wife (Hom. V. 1, in Genes).

Origin proceeds then to show that for each Christian virtue a wife may be taken: for hospitality, for the care of the poor, for patience—for each virtue one.

The above selection shows how some of the church fathers were accustomed to deal with Scripture. The marriage of Abraham and Keturah is made to serve as a representation of the practice of virtue. Their marriage was not denied, but it was treated in such a way that it makes very little difference whether or not the marriage actually took place.

The following selection proves that Origen would set aside an event in sacred history when it baffled him. The selection also sets forth the exegetical code to which he adhered when expositing Scripture.

But as if, in all the instances of this covering the logical connection and order of the law had been preserved, we would not certainly believe, when thus possessing the meaning of Scripture in a continuous series, that anything else was contained in it save what was indicated on the surface; so for that reason divine wisdom took care that certain stumbling blocks or interruptions, to the historical meaning, should take place, by the introduction into the midst (of the narrative) of certain impossibilities and incongruities; that in this way the very interruption of the narrative might, as by the interposition of a bolt, present an obstacle to the reader, whereby he might refuse to acknowledge the way which conducts to the ordinary meaning; and being thus excluded and debarred from it, we might be recalled to the beginning of another way, in order that, by entering upon a narrow path, and passing to a loftier and more sublime road, he might lay open the immense breadth of divine wisdom. This, however, must not be unnoted by us, that as the chief object of the Holy Spirit is to preserve the coherence of the spiritual meaning, either in those things which ought to be done or which have already been performed, if He anywhere finds that those events which, according to the history, took place, can be adapted to a spiritual meaning. He composed a texture of both kinds in one style of narration, always concealing the hidden meaning more deeply; but where the historical narrative could not be made appropriate to the spiritual coherence of the occurrences He asserted sometimes spiritual things which either did not take place or could not take place; sometimes also what might happen but what did not; and He does this at one time in few words, which taken in their bodily meaning, seem incapable of containing truth, and at another by the assertion of many. And this we find frequently to be the case in the legislative portions, where there are many things manifestly useful among the bodily precepts but a very great number also in which no principle of utility is at all discernible, and sometimes even things which are judged to be impossible. Now, all this as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit in order that, seeing those events which lie on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to the investigation of that truth which is more deeply concealed, and to the ascertaining of a meaning worthy of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by Him.

Nor was it only in regard to these Scriptures which were composed down to the event of Christ that the Holy Spirit thus dealt; but as being one and the same Spirit, and proceeding from one God, He dealt in the same way with the evangelists and apostles. For even those narratives which He inspired them to write were not composed without the aid of that wisdom of His, the nature of which we have above explained. Whence also in them were mingled not a few things by which the historical order of the narrative being interrupted and broken up, the attention of the reader might be recalled, by the impossibility of the case, to the examination of the inner meaning. But, that our meaning may be ascertained by the facts themselves, let us examine the passages of Scripture. Now, who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun and moon and stars—the first day even without a sky? And who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden toward the East, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that any one eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.

So far Origen. The quotation is taken from his Principiis, book IV, chapter 1.

According to this particular church father, Scripture is susceptible to a twofold sense: the literal, which he regarded as carnal, and the deeper spiritual sense. It is also interesting to note how the events and phenomena recorded in the first chapter of Genesis are dealt with. He denies that the matters related are events in history. The latter is regarded as figurative speech embodying a mystery. Origin’s mode of interpretation relative to the sacred record of Genesis does not differ materially from that of Dr. Geelkerken. Does not the latter aver that what is recorded concerning the serpent is no fact in history but a figurative presentation of a higher truth? There is not much of anything new under the sun.

It ought to be plain that such a mode of interpretation has the effect of converting the Bible into a book of conundrums. If words lose their meaning and value as soon as they are pressed into service by the Holy Spirit, if nay is no longer nay and yea, yea, the language of Scripture cannot be regarded as the vehicle of which God availed Himself to transport truth from His own consciousness into the consciousness of man. Then, in the words of Fairbairn, the Scripture is converted into a sea of doubt and uncertainty.

To prove this once more, we wish to quote from Stomata, of Clement of Alexandria. The way he deals with the history relating to Abraham’s wives is peculiar.

For if philosophy professes control of the tongue and the belly, and the parts below the belly, it ought to be chosen on its own account. But it appears more worthy of respect and pre-eminence, if cultivated for the honor and knowledge of God. And Scripture will afford a testimony to what has been said in what follows. Sarah was at one time barren, being Abraham’s wife. Sarah having no child assigned her maid, by name Hagar, the Egyptian, to Abraham in order to get children. Wisdom therefore, who dwells with the man of faith (and Abraham was reckoned faithful and righteous), was still barren and without child in that generation, not having brought forth to Abraham aught allied to virtue. And she, as was proper, thought that he, being now in the time of progress, should have intercourse with secular culture first (by Egyptian the world is designated figuratively); and afterward should approach to her and beget Isaac.

Not only did the Greek fathers use the historical materials of Scripture as receptacles for their imaginings, but they were wont to affix their inventions to the ceremonial institutions as well. Clement even went so far as to weave his fanciful musings into the precepts of the Decalogue.

Ancient Latin Church Fathers on Types

The fathers of the Latin church, however, cannot be charged with going into these extremes. Their expositions of Scripture, compared with those of the Greek fathers, were much more sober. This does not mean, however, that they were not at all given to allegorizing the truths of Scripture, and never yielded to the play of fancy. They did so. Let us quote from the works of St. Augustine, in whom the fathers of the Latin church were fairly represented. The selection which follows is taken from Augustine’s reply to Faustus the Manichaean. Let it be said that Faustus denied that the prophets predict Christ. Augustine wants to prove that such predictions are there.

As a wife was made from Adam from his side while he slept, the church becomes the property of her dying Saviour, by the sacrament of the blood which flowed from His side after His death. The woman made out of her husband’s side is called Eve, or Life, and the mother of living beings; and the Lord says in the Gospel: “Except a man eat my flesh and drink my blood, he has no life in him.” The whole narrative of Genesis, in the most minute details, is a prophecy of Christ and the Church with reference either to the good Christians or to the bad. There is a significance in the words of the Apostle when he calls Adam “the figure of Him who was to come”; and when he says, “A man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and the Church. This points most obviously to the way in which Christ left His Father; for “though He was in the form of God, and thought it not robbery to be equal with God, He emptied Himself and took upon Him the form of a servant.” And so, too, He left His mother, the synagogue of the Jews which cleaved to the carnality of the Old Testament, and was united to the church, His holy bride, that in the peace of the New Testament they two might be one flesh.

The above quotation indicates that mere formal resemblances were sufficient to prompt Augustine to place an event in a class with the types. To be sure, Adam is a type or figure of Christ. We have Paul’s word for it that such is the case. But Eve is no type of the church. The resemblance between Eve, the supposed type, and the object typified, viz., the church, is an invention. The church is identified with Christ’s blood and made to come forth from the Savior’s side.

How indiscreet and capricious, this mode of dealing with Scripture. It should not escape our attention, however, that Augustine is not addicted to that pernicious mode of interpretation which the Greek fathers were wont to apply to Scripture. The passages yield no specimens of allegorical explanations. He does not treat the matters recorded by the sacred text as if they were but emblems or symbols of higher spiritual truths instead of facts or events in history. Hence, though it be true that Augustine seems to take delight in fabricating types, he nevertheless does not injure the sacred text as such by applying to it Origen’s allegorical mode of interpretation. He does not maintain that the matters related are not facts in history.

We shall now leave the fathers of the early Christian church. In studying the types of Scripture, we must strive to avoid their extremes, and especially those of the Greek fathers. Their manner of dealing with Scripture must not be ours. To seek for types in every incident and event will not do. He who is unwilling to recognize the truth of the facts and the events of Scripture and is bent on seeing only mystery has already lifted the Bible out of the realm of realities and placed it in the realm of the fanciful. Deny the historical facts of Scripture and you destroy the foundations of Christianity.