Typology: Signs and the Things Signified

I am enjoying current discussions of the relationship of typology to OT and NT sacraments and the appropriation of the grace of Christ by OT saints. This is a fruitful field of discussion. In fact, I think that it is precisely the place where we can locate true areas of agreement and disagreement.

To accomplish that, we have to face the challenge of language. How do we speak so as to be understood? Patience and willingness to listen to explanations certainly helps. I want to try to add some clarity on my own position. I would encourage readers to consider my fuller arguments in The Mystery of Christ.

Two Signs, One Thing Signified

Let’s begin by looking at the question as some see it and speak of it.

It is common for the Reformed to speak of the OT and NT sacraments as differing in the outward sign, but not the thing signified. Two different signs signify one and the same thing. When they contrast the differing outward signs, they acknowledge a difference in clarity and even simplicity, as one can see in Dr. Clark’s recent post where he includes a helpful assortment of quotations from Reformed theologians. One of the quotes in that post (Ursinus, using Augustine) states the position plainly, affirming that “The sacraments of the Old and New Testaments differ in their signs, but agree in the thing signified.”

Would I disagree with this position? Would Particular Baptists disagree with it? Some have said so. Note how Dr. Ramsey highlights the same issue, pointing back to seventeenth-century Presbyterians interacting with Baptistic Congregationalists (i.e., early Particular Baptists):

Is this an all-or-nothing issue as some seem to make it? Is the position “The OT and NT sacraments differ in the outward sign, but not the thing signified” the only way to approach the question?

Signs, and Things Signified

I find that we can attain greater clarity by using typology to distinguish OT and NT sacraments as two different kinds of signs:

1. OT and NT sacraments are both signs.

2. Pre-incarnation sacraments, by virtue of being types, are signs that signify two things.

2a. Types signify something in their own context.

2b. The original significance of a type points above and beyond itself to a greater, and other, future reality (antitype), namely, Christ, his covenant, and his kingdom.

3. Post-incarnation Sacraments are signs that signify one thing, the very reality of 2b (antitype).

Consider an example, as a test:

  • OT sacrament: Animal Sacrifices
  • Its Antitype: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross
  • NT sacrament: The Lord’s Supper

What is the original context and significance of the sacrificial system?

20 Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. (Lev. 4:20 ESV)

Note that Animal sacrifices “make atonement” and provide forgiveness. This is their original significance and function in their own context.

Above and beyond this, these sacrifices point to a greater, and other, future reality, namely Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The Scriptures tell us that these sacrifices were types. But it also tells us that these types did not, in themselves, accomplish or provide that which Christ’s sacrifice provided.

1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.
2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?
3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.
4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb. 10:1-4 ESV)

The animal sacrifices, in themselves, did not provide the same atonement or forgiveness of sins that Christ’s sacrifice did. If they did, the sacrifices would have ceased. And yet, for all their inherent weakness, reminding worshipers of sin, they were “a shadow of the good things to come.”

As types, these sacrifices signified two different, but analogous, things. They signified atonement and forgiveness in the context of ceremonial cleanliness for the offspring of Abraham according to the flesh (the circumcised). They also signified the atonement and forgiveness provided by Jesus Christ for the offspring of Abraham according to the Spirit (believers). The writer to the Hebrews (*cough* Paul *cough*) asserts that these are not the same.

The Lord’s Supper is a sign, just as the sacrifices were. But the Lord’s Supper signifies one thing, and one thing only: the atonement and forgiveness provided by Jesus Christ for the offspring of Abraham according to the Spirit (believers).

Comparison and Contrast

With this understanding, is the following statement, introduced above, sufficient for discussion and clarity? “The OT and NT sacraments differ in the outward sign, but not the thing signified.” I propose that it is not sufficient, because it skips over the original context and significance of OT types. It creates an all-or-nothing that confines and obstructs the debate.

I, and Particular Baptists, affirm the effective mediation of Jesus Christ in all ages, and the appropriation and enjoyment of the grace of the new covenant for all of Christ’s children at all times. And we affirm the role of types and shadows as being the means of this grace reaching OT saints, and being a source of their communion with Christ. OT sacrifices would have functioned equally for a believer or unbeliever in Israel, restoring ceremonial holiness. But they would have been a means of grace to the believing.

But, due to the substantial difference between types and their antitype (as evidenced by the sacrificial system), we must specify that OT sacraments are signs pointing to two things. And when the antitype to which they point arrives, the typical sign and its original significance and context are removed, having served their purpose. All that remains is the reality, bringing with it its own signs that clearly and directly portray one thing, the antitype, and nothing else.

This is why Christ’s children are all one, whether born from above before or after his incarnation. And this is why Christ’s children born from above before his incarnation communed with him through OT ordinances. But this is also why we affirm that those OT ordinances, in themselves, are not the same as the NT ordinances, while also affirming a direct continuity in the grace they conferred.

Understanding Differences and Tensions

In my experience, Reformed Christians either ignore or disdain this typology because it injects tensions and serious questions into the Reformed view of the relationship between the old and new covenants, arriving eventually at (among many other things) questions about the continuity of baptism and circumcision.

If you doubt my assessment, consider various internal debates in the Reformed world. Issues revolving around typology explain why Meredith Kline’s two-level typology is viewed by some as granting serious ground to Baptist theology. More broadly, some in the Reformed camp are highly critical of the systematic implications of versions of Republication that identify the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works functioning on its own typological level, distinct from, but subservient to, the covenant of grace.

Some see (and I fully agree) that such a view holds extensive common ground with the view of typology that I am proposing.

Anon, A Censure of Three, 8

I differ from such persons (and Owen) because I extend the view to the Abrahamic covenant where even the Reformed who hold to Republication do not.

And, perhaps most informative are the roots of all this in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries themselves. However, I am saving for another time an instructive debate and discussion from the seventeenth century where these very issues arose within the Reformed camp itself.

Nathaniel Wyles, Comfort for Believers, 37


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