Theology: April 2011 Archives

Type

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The word 'type' is a self-antonym.

As used in Christian theology, a type is something that looks forward or back to an anti-type. The usual idea is that the type is a partial or incomplete reality looking toward a more complete reality. So David is a type of Jesus as a precursor of a Messiah with some messianic elements, or the temple is a type of Christ as taking a form that looked forward to what he would institute in the church. The temple is also a type of the church (the people, not the building), where the church is God's dwelling.

I was listening to a Bloggingheads conversation between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury, and McWhorter used the term 'type' in this way. He said Jesse Jackson is a type, meaning that he exemplifies some elements found within a generalized group of black leaders.

In philosophy, a type is not the specific instance, where someone has some elements of some general form. The type is the general form, and the tokens are the specific instances. The type would be black leaders of a certain sort, and Jesse Jackson would be the token.

I don't think it's just immersion in philosophical circles for 15 years that makes me think the philosophical use is the closer of the two to ordinary usage. I've always found the theological use to be strange, but it's only just occurred to me that it's not just strange but backwards. Every time I hear someone use it in a sermon without explaining it, I think the ordinary person isn't going to get it, and it's just occurred to me why. If you say David is a type of Christ, people will think that means he's a kind of Christ. In loose usage, that doesn't mean he's a category rather than a person, but theologians who say such things don't remotely mean that David's a messiah. They mean he's a precursor of the Messiah.

I don't think the ordinary usage is exactly opposite the theological usage, but this kind of funny use, which becomes second-nature for some with a lot of theological training, is at odds with how most people will hear the term, and that's something preachers would do well to keep in mind.

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