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One of the contributions of twentieth-century Catholic “nouvelle théologie,” and of Henri de Lubac and Jean Danielou in particular, is a rehabilitation of the typological exegesis of the Bible practiced by patristic and medieval theologians. Typological interpretation assumes that events and institutions of the Old Testament present (to use Augustine’s terminology) “latent” pictures of Christ, and the Christ to whom the Old Testament testifies is the totus Christus: Head and Body, Jesus and his Church. In this, the fathers and medieval theologians fully agreed with Paul, who wrote that the history of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness were “things written for our instruction.”

Following the apostolic example, the fathers taught that Israel and “daughter Jerusalem”—and all brides and harlots of Old Testament history—manifest the Church under various guises. The fathers could thus view Old Testament history as the Lord’s stormy betrothal with his headstrong bride. Augustine made it a basic interpretive principle that the Psalms are now the words of the Savior, now the words of his people crying for salvation, now, mystically, both together. The Psalms form the songbook of the whole Christ who speaks in it “of us, by us, in us, while we speak in him.” At its best, then, typological interpretation is quite different from allegory. While Greek allegorists interpreted myths as embodiments of timeless and abstract principles, the fathers plundered the Old Testament to divine the patterns of history. Because the interpretive path runs from old Israel through Christ to the new Israel, moreover, typology assumes that the New Covenant, like the Old, is concerned with a concrete, historical community.

Modern scholarship has approached the Old Testament in a very different manner. Rejecting typology as fanciful and unscientific, many theologians have treated the Old Testament as a historical document with little or no religious significance for the Church. Others, no less hostile to typology, see the transition from Old to New as a change from a historical, material, and social religion to a timeless, spiritual, and individual one. At the turn of this century, in his lectures on the “essence of Christianity,” Adolf von Harnack said, “The kingdom of God comes by coming to individuals, making entrance into their souls, and being grasped by them . . . . Everything externally dramatic, all public historical meaning vanish here; all external hope for the future fades also . . . . It is not a matter of angels and devils, nor of principalities and powers, but of God and the soul, of the soul and its God.” This is the kernel of Christianity; everything else is dispensable chaff.

Harnack openly admitted that he agreed with the ancient heretic Marcion that the Old Testament was part of the chaff. Though few followed him to this conclusion, Harnack was expressing a widespread belief, one that still finds echoes in unexpected places. “As long as the old covenant was in force the temporal and terrestrial blessings were a part of the promise given to Abraham,” but with the advent of Christ and the coming of the Spirit, “the temporal, earthly, typical elements of the old dispensation were dropped from the great house of salvation as scaffolding from the finished edifice.” These are the words not of Harnack but of Paul Jewett, a contemporary evangelical theologian of some stature. Yet the similarity is striking. For all their real differences in approach to the Bible, evangelicals are at one with Protestant modernism in their rejection of typology and, frequently enough, in their belief that Christianity is more or less purely internal, a religion of unmediated individual contact with God. Nor is this tangential to evangelicalism: Every student of the movement has noted the distinctive emphasis on “new birth,” understood as a private encounter with God.

The political implications of this hermeneutical and theological shift are profound. If Christianity is a purely internal religion, if the trajectory is from Old Testament history to the motions of the individual soul, then, as de Lubac brilliantly argued, the whole field of public life is given over to the rough play of secular and impersonal forces. So Schleiermacher, the preacher of what Barth called “consciousness theology,” says that the Old Testament is to be utterly repudiated as part of the Christian Bible and, consistently, also castigates those who drag religion from the “depths of the heart into the civil world,” where, presumably, it can only be contaminated.

There is yet another hermeneutical alternative to typology, one beginning at a different point but arriving at a similar destination. This method sees a direct fulfillment of the events and institutions of ancient Israel in contemporary political circumstances. The method has a venerable heritage, from Eusebius’ celebration of Constantine as the climax of the Gospel, to Charlemagne’s belief that he was a new David, to the Puritan preachers who elaborated parallels between Elizabeth I and David, to American preachers who compared the revolution of 1776 to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. This use of the Bible continues to the present day: President Clinton once imagined himself a new Moses, the deliverer of a “new covenant.” (Now, perhaps more modestly, he is only a “repairer of the breach.”)

Forging a civil religion, in which the holy community is not the Church but the nation, this viewpoint cedes public life to the state. The Church is demoted to national cheerleader and retreats from public action to pursue a ministry of private consolation. It is no accident that Erastian opponents of the Puritans found this hermeneutic useful in supporting royal claims to supremacy over the Church, thereby supporting a reversion to the monistic polis of antiquity whose destruction by Christianity Rousseau found so lamentable. In their own, often politically centered hermeneutics, contemporary evangelicals are sometimes farther from the ancient fathers than from the Anglican Hobbes, who—simultaneously criticizing Catholics, Presbyterians, and Congregational Separatists—thought the greatest abuse of Scripture is to suggest that the promise of Israel has been fulfilled in the Church rather than in the sovereign state.

The typological method—by emphasizing that the Church as a real historical institution and communion was prophesied and typified in the Old Testament—provides theological grounding for the Church’s efforts to discipline the state. From a typological viewpoint, it is of the essence of Christianity to occupy public terrain and form a public, albeit “nonpolitical,” community. And therefore it is of the essence of Christianity to deny that the public square is dressed in a flag and nothing but a flag. Part of the theological defense of freedom, then, lies in the recovery of typological interpretation, in learning again to repeat, without irony or embarrassment and as a political credo, the words of Paul: “Jerusalem above is free; and she is our mother.” 

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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