How should we then read?

It is a question with which I have occasionally wrestled. My freshman year of college, I was introduced to the world of hermeneutics, which seemed at the time to be the discipline of debunking other people’s interpretations of the Bible.

Every time I am confronted with a scholar as careful and erudite as Anthony Esolen, however, the answer to how we should read becomes momentarily clear: “just like him.” His playful dexterity with literature is remarkable, which is why I take statements such as this one very seriously:

Nowadays, typological reading is dismissed as childish by the professional Bible interpreter, who prides himself on what he calls, in a stunning bit of question-begging, his more accurate “history.” What can the bronze serpent in the desert (Num. 21:9) really, which is to say historically, which is to say according to a naturalistic interpretation of causes and effects, have to do with the death of Christ on the cross? But the typological reader is more historical than the historicist, because he sees the story in the history, while the historicist rules the story out from the start.

Typological reading has been rejected, it seems, because of the purported lack of norms governing the interpretation. Of course, that objection is better framed as a caution—typological reading (like all reading) is an activity which must be governed by the Spirit of God. Not only that, but it is a practice of reading that presumes the Spirit’s activity in the formation of the text. We can look for typology in the text because history is governed by providence—the story has an author. As Esolen writes:

A world governed by so playful—I can find no better word—a providence abounds in meaning, a cascade of it, from every least word or action. If God is no miser of his blessings, neither is he a miser of meanings: they burst from every tree and leaf. It follows that we cannot know the full significance of what we say and do, but that God does know and can choose to reveal that significance to others, especially by means of events that reenact the past and reveal it to have been far more, or far other, than what the actors themselves supposed.

What does this type of reading look like in practice? Esolen continues:

A charming insance of this cascade is given unwittingly by the inspired author of the Abraham and Isaac episode. Abraham, he says, carried the knife and the fire-pot. Isaac carried the wood. A deft Anglo-Saxon poetic rendering of the scene, in the so-called Genesis A text, makes the connection swiftly and explicitly: Wudu baer sunu (2887B). “The son bore the wood,” the poet says, calling attention to his line by the rhyme, most unusual in Anglo-Saxon composition. Or, since wudu and sudu posess identical forms in the nominative and accusative cases, “The wood bore the son.” Without dropping any other hint, the poet recalls to his audience a new field of significance, one unknown to Abraham and Isaac. The lad—from whom we hear not one word of protest against his father—foreshadows Christ, who carried the wood up another hill for a sacrifice, his own. Christ was Isaac, was the ram; Christ bore the wood to the altar, and the wood bore him. God spared the son of Abraham, but he did not spare himself, so great was his love for the world.

If we cannot see the typology in the text, we may be looking through a broken sets of glasses.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. If reality is un-meaningful, then when I read a meaningful repetition in history I should suspect the historian of “literaturizing” the truth.

    If reality is meaningful, then when I read a meaningful repetition in history I should be amazed at history.

    Why do we moderns assume reality, and history, are necessarily random, haphazard, meaningless, a series of efficient causes?

    Perhaps we do not “believe what we see,” but rather “see what we already believe” — that final causes are fantasy and a literary invention.


  2. […] Continuing a line Matt started, here is an interesting article (about 25 pages) by Peter Enns, an evangelical scholar at Westminster Seminary, on the Apostolic manner of interpreting scripture. This “Apostolc Hermaneutic” is remarkably distinct from the widely-used and, in many cases, uncritically relied-upon “historical-grammatical method” that Protestants have inherited from the Enlightenment and Renaissance. […]


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