Typology and Mythology

In our ongoing discussion (see also the previous post), we have been exploring the Church’s approach to understanding the Ark of the Covenant, or rather of understanding through the Ark of the Covenant. I’ve been talking about typology without explaining myself more fully. This post is a divergence from the main topic to help us come to grips with the whys and whats of typology.

A type is, in a sense, a kind of metaphor. For instance, Jonah is often considered a type of Christ in that he went down into the deepest parts of the earth for three days in the belly of a whale, only to rise again from the depths just as Christ rose from the dead.

A fundamental principle of an Orthodox hermeneutic is to read all scriptures, including the Old Testament, Christologically. An objection is often raised that this approach may violate the spirit of the text by reading something into it that is not there.

Modern readings of the Scriptures tend to focus on chronology, however, the authors of the Holy Scriptures were not simply recording history, but conveying a personal experience of God for posterity. Saint John Chrysostom explains that the Biblical authors “perceive with the eyes of the spirit things due to happen after a great number of years.”1 This perception implies something that goes beyond any intellectual endeavor, demonstrating a deep and direct experience of God.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. The Latin word vestigium means ‘footprint’. Our English derivative ‘vestiges’ has lost this hidden meaning, but it helps to paint a picture of God’s activity in history. God does not simply send written messages to his prophets to be delivered to His people. He actively leaves vestiges of himself throughout history. As the architect of history, Christ is able to leave his ‘footprints’ directly in the human timeline where the Biblical authors are able to perceive and experience them.

This experience of God is beyond an intellectual abstraction. In keeping with the ancient understanding of memory and imagination as foundational aspects of abstract thought, Unseen Warfare explains that “imagination is a power of the soul such that, by its very nature, it has no capacity for entering the realm of union with God.”2 Because this direct experience of God is not a rational abstraction, it cannot be conveyed by rational means such as direct exposition, but is established through the use of types.

I suggest that typology is akin to what C. S. Lewis calls myth. Lewis’s notion of myth did not coincide with the colloquial usage implying falsehood. Lewis believed that myth is somewhere between the intellectual and the purely experiential. As we noted earlier, purely intellectual endeavors have no capacity for entrance into a direct experience of God. On the other hand, pure experience does not bring understanding. Lewis advocated myth as a partial solution to this problem. He posited that, “In the enjoyment of a great myth we come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction.”3 In a sense, myth can be seen to bridge the spiritual and the intellectual.

Typology thus provides the best and most natural approach through which to ‘tradition’, or pass on, the experience of the divine to following generations. Christ’s extensive and direct use of parables in his teaching affirms this mythological approach. Additionally, typology enables God to pedagogically ‘sneak’ up on truth. The Holy Spirit reveals Christ—truth—to mankind only inasmuch as mankind has the capacity to understand Him in its present state. A case in point is the Law of Moses, which Saint Paul likens to a tutor to bring us unto Christ (Galatians 3:24). Mankind was not yet ready to see Christ and so received a shadow of Christ as a step in its growth.

Saint John Chrysostom affirms that the Holy Spirit “explained everything to us by moving the author’s tongue in such a way as to take account of the limitations of the listeners.”4 Saint John demonstrates his point by drawing a potent parallel between the creation saga in the first chapter of Genesis and the first chapter of the Gospel of John, comparing the creation of light in Genesis with the enlightenment brought to the world through the true light, Jesus Christ the Word. In the time of Moses the world was not yet ready to receive the message delivered by John, but was able to catch a glimpse of the truth through the type present in Genesis.

The Scriptures and the ‘mythology’ portrayed therein pervaded the culture of Israel at the time of Christ and created an ethos of messianic anticipation. Saint John the Forerunner sent disciples to Jesus to confirm that in fact He was the Messiah whom all were anticipating (Luke 7:18-23). Jesus confirmed this truth by allowing John’s disciples to directly experience the fulfillment of prophecy (Isaiah 61:1). This event clearly demonstrates that the Jews of Christ’s time were anxiously awaiting a Messiah and Christ was actively fulfilling the promises set forth in Scripture.

To further reveal his intervention in history, Christ took unto himself certain names and titles (e.g. ‘Son of Man’) which He had planted in the Hebrew Scriptures so that He might connect Old Testament concepts and teachings with his earthly ministry.5 Frank Herbert’s missionaria protectiva would have been impressed. (You’ll get this reference if you’ve read Dune).

Before he ascended, Christ explicitly outlined to His disciples the things in the Scriptures that pertained to him. According to Saint Luke, “…beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 KJV). The disciples later observed that as He spoke to them, their hearts burned within them, again demonstrating an experience beyond rational thought.

The eastern approach to theology focuses less on a rational understanding of God and more on a direct mystical experience of God. The types present throughout the Old Testament pointing to a fulfillment in Christ help to bring about this near mystical understanding of our Lord Jesus Christ in a way that formal discourse is powerless to evoke. The apostolic and patristic fathers followed the tradition of Christ in their reading of Scripture, finding the footprints of God throughout.

In our next post, we’ll return to the Ark of the Covenant and begin to explore some lesser known ancient documents that help to shine some light on the Ark.


1 Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 10, in The Fathers of the Church, trans. Robert C. Hill, (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), vol. 74, pp. 132-133.

2 Lorenzo Scupoli, Unseen Warfare, trans. E. Kadloubovsky & G. E. H. Palmer (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1987), p. 148.

3 C. S. Lewis, Myth Became Fact.

4 Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 73, p. 42.

5 Father John Breck, Scripture in Tradition, (Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2001), p. 34.

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