Lessons in Typology from Johann Gerhard

—By Roy S. Askins

In studying Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces: Exegesis IV: On Christ (available here or Kindle here), I read a series of beautiful typological exercises Gerhard works for his readers. He directs them to On the Interpretation of Scripture for a more complete study of the practice, but, alas, this volume has yet to be published in English by Concordia Publishing House. Regardless, Gerhard’s brief foray into typology in On the Person and Office of Christ renders us some helpful principles.

The practice of finding typological connections between the Old and New Testaments seems to me freighted with problems. I tend to approach typology with fear and trepidation over making a “bad” typological interpretation. There’s the persistent fear of overstepping my bounds and stepping into Origin’s errors. I worry about making a connection that isn’t exegetically valid or warranted. And yet, the practice of typology fascinates me, especially as I read the early church fathers, Luther, and others, such as Johann Gerhard. I wonder if the historical critical framework of much scholarly discussion in the last centuries has become so pervasive that even we who hold to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture hesitate before making connections between biblical authors who wrote in such different times. (For more on the relationship between modern and ancient exegesis, read John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno as they try to understand, but refuse to evaluate, early Christian interpretation in Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, [Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005].) The doctrine of inspiration, though, almost demands typological interpretation; if the God is behind the entire book, why wouldn’t he deliberately foreshadow the coming Messiah in as many ways as possible so that when the Messiah comes, we would might recognize him?

Regardless of its healthy pedigree, it seems that typological interpretations still lingers on the fringes of exegetical and homiletical practices. You won’t find papers at the Society of Biblical Literature drawing the same connections Gerhard does. A quick skim of Gerhard, however, provides a number of helpful principles for appropriate typological interpretation.

  • The typological and the analogy of faith.

I’m beginning at the end, as Gerhard gives this warning at the end of his typological diversion, but it’s sometimes helpful to begin with the warning. He writes:

Here, however, we must note that when we deal with allegories, we must use special circumspection, lest we put forth anything contrary to the analogy of faith and provide a stumbling block for the weak and material for mockery for our adversaries. ((Johann Gerhard, On the Person and Office of Christ, trans. Richard J. Dinda [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009], 33.))

Gerhard warns against excessive or inappropriate allegorical interpretation. The analogy of faith determines at what point the typological interpretation oversteps its theological bounds. He also exhorts us to use allegories and typology as “seasoning” rather than the food. With this warning in mind, here are some of the categories he uses in making typological connections.

  • Types via Linguistic Connections

Gerhard offers these typological expressions when discussing the various synonyms of the name of Christ. Old Testament names provide fertile grounds for typological interpretations of the Scriptures. For instance, “The name ‘Adam’ means ‘red’ because he was formed out of reddish dust (Gen. 2:7). Christ is the one ‘who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah’ (Isa. 63:10).” ((Gerhard, 31)) In another typological comparison, Gerhard connects the name of Noah, which means comfort, with Christ who is the comforter. ((Gerhard, 32))

Other linguistic connections can also be made, connections that might seem suspect to ears trained by modern exegesis. Once again, without the doctrine of inspiration, the connection between Noah’s name meaning comforter and Jesus who is the comforter cannot be made; it’s merely coincidence. These linguistic connections were commonplace for the early church fathers. In fact, O’Keefe and Reno identify this as one of the primary means of typological interpretation done by the early fathers.

  • Types of Origin

In this category, Gerhard looks at Old Testament figures and compares their origin with the origin of Christ. Adam for instance, was made from “virgin soil” while Christ was born of the “virgin Mary.” Or, in a brilliant analogy of Christ’s two natures, he writes, “Adam’s origin was from heaven and earth because his body was formed out of the earth, but his soul was breathed into him by God (Gen 2:7).” ((Gerhard, 31)) The connection to Christ’s two natures is obvious.

  • Types of Function

Types can also derive from the various functions of Old Testament figures. Just as Adam was the father of the entire human Christ, so also “Christ is the ‘eternal father’ (Isa. 9:6), from whom and through whom we are reborn to eternal life (1 Cor 15:45).” ((Gerhard, 31)) Adam’s purpose was to be the “guardian and colonist of Paradise” while “Christ is the master and guardian of the mystical paradise, which is the Church.” ((Gerhard, 31)) Thus, Christ was typified, in the Old Testament, by the functions of various Old Testament figures. Noah’s ark building becomes a type of Christ’s work in the church. Abel’s shepherding prefigures Christ’s own work as shepherd.

  • Types by virture of Divine Action

In this category, Gerhard sees a type by virtue of similarity of action by God upon an Old Testament figure and upon Christ’s life. My personal favorite is the connection between Adam and Christ:

A rib is taken from the side of the sleeping Adam, and from it a wife was made for him (Gen. 2:21). So also, from the side of Christ, dead on the cross, flowed forth blood and water, the two sacraments of the church of the New Testament, through which the Church is built as the Bride of Christ (John 19:34). ((Gerhard, 32))

God acts upon certain figures in the Old Testament for the purpose of and with the intent to prefigure the Christ. Moses’ life was lived to prefigure the Christ. God acted upon him in certain ways in order to act upon Christ in the same way, thereby further cementing the identity of Christ the prophet greater than Moses.

Studying such typological connections provides fruitful food for thought as well as helpful homiletical illustrations. It requires a deep knowledge of the Scripture and a healthy trust in the Holy Spirit to have inspired the Scripture for a reason—to point to the Christ. When inspiration is sacrificed to fit the Scriptures to various theories of hermenuetical interpretation, then the typological interpretation of Scripture faulters; typology depends on the notion of one source behind the Scriptures, namely God. When used in accordance with the analogy of faith, as Gerhard here suggests, typology adds a liveliness to the text, a depth and breadth that brings the testaments, old and new, to life.


The Rev. Roy S. Askins serves Trinity Lutheran Church, Livingston, Texas.


Quotes from Johann Gerhard’s Theological Commonplaces: Exegesis IV On Christ © 2012 Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission. For ordering information go to www.cph.org.