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The Old and New Testaments had always given the liturgy a historical dimension, expressed not least in the typological linking of Old Testament "types" to New Testament "antitypes" ("antitype" means "imprint": the term is from die-stamping and has nothing to do with hostility). — Alexander Murray, 8

Typology (or typological symbolism) is a Christian form of biblical interpretation that proceeds on the assumption that God placed anticipations of Christ in the laws, events, and people of the Old Testament. According to this way of understanding the Bible, Samson, who sacrificed his life for God's people, partially anticipates Christ, who repeats the action, endowing it with a deeper, more complete, more spiritual significance. Similarly, the scapegoat and the animals sacrificed in the Temple at Jerusalem, both of which attoned for man's sins, and Aaron, God's priest, are types. As Thomas Hartwell Horne explains in An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, the text that was standard reading for British divinity students:

A type, in its primary and literal meaning, simply denotes a rough draught, or less accurate model, from which a more perfect image is made; but in the sacred or theological sense of the term, a type may be defined to be a symbol of something future and distant, or an example prepared and evidently designed by God to prefigure that future thing. What is thus prefigured is called the antitype.

Horne further explains that the Bible contains three kinds of types: the historical, the legal, and the prophetical.

Historical Types

Historical types, such as those provided by Moses, Samson, David, and Melchizedek, "are the characters, actions, and fortunes of some eminent persons recorded in the Old Testament, so ordered by Divine Providence as to be exact prefigurations of the characters, actions, and fortunes of future persons who should arise under Gospel dispensation." For example, as Newman explains in "Moses the Type of Christ", this first great prophet of the Jews prefigured Christ as redeemer, prophet, and intercessor for guilty man.

Legal Types

The second major branch of typology is that provided by legal types, which were also known as ritual, ceremonial, and Levitical types. Taking all the rules for sacrifice proscribed in the Book of Leviticus, Christian interpreters explained that they simultaneously enforce the need for sacrifice and, by suggesting the inadequacy of animal sacrifice, point toward the need for a divine one.

Prophetical Types

The third form of typology is composed of " prophetical types [which] are those, by which the divinely inspired prophets prefigured or signified things either present or future, by means of external symbols." The most important of all prophetic types was that which appears in Genesis 3:15 when God tells the serpent, "And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shall bruise his heel." All denominations agreed that this passage from Genesis shadows forth a fundamental battle of good and evil, thus providing believers with a view of the central law of human history. F.W. Robertson, the Broad Churchman, agrees with more literal-minded denominations that "it is the law which governs the conflict with evil. It can only be crushed by suffering from it. . . . The Son of Man who puts His naked foot on the serpent's head, crushes it: the fang goes into His heel."

Since the final clause of God's pronouncement, that the serpent shall bruise the heel of the woman's seed, was conventionally taken to prefigure the Crucifixion, this first prophecy was commonly understood to contain the entire so-called "Gospel scheme" for man's redemption. As John Charles Ryle, the Evangelical Bishop of Liverpool, argued in one of his many tracts, "one golden chain runs through" the entire Bible:

no salvation excepting by Jesus Christ. The bruising of the serpent's head foretold in the day of the fall, — the clothing of our first parents with skins, — the sacrifices of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, — the passover, and all the particulars of the Jewish law, — the high-priest, — the altar, — the daily offering of the lamb, — the holy of holies entered only by blood, — the scapegoat . . . all preach with one voice, salvation only by Jesus Christ.

For Ryle, as for many writers from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, types provided images or situations that contained within them an entire imaginative cosmos. As such, biblical types provided British authors from Donne, Herbert, and Milton to Wordsworth, Browning, the Rossettis, and Hopkins with effective means of imagery, allusion, and even characterization.


Landow, George P. Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought. Routledge: 1980. [Full text]

Murray, Alexander. "Modern Gothic" Times Literary Supplement (24 October 2008): 7-9.

Last modified 1998; epigraph added 14 November 2008