Typology and the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Typology is a form of Biblical interpretation in which a person, an event, or an object is understood to foreshadow a later person, event, or object. A common example of this form of Biblical Interpretation can be found in the way in which most Christians read the Old Testament as containing multiple foreshadowings of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For example, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) is often understood as being an Old Testament type of the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross for our sins. Another example of an Old Testament typology can be found in the Israelite practice of Circumcision: just as, for males, Circumcision was the outward sign of membership in the covenant community, so also Baptism is the outward sign of membership, for all Christians, in the Body of Christ. In other words, Baptism in the New Testament cast its shadow into the Old Testament, creating the “type” of Hebrew Circumcision.

This method of interpretation should not be understood as, in any way, invalidating the original meaning of the Old Testament persons, places, or things which are identified as types; rather, a new layer of interpretation is being applied atop the original revelation. In other words, a deeper understanding is being drawn from the Old Testament in direct relation to a New Testament application. This should enrich both our Christian experience and our appreciation for our Jewish heritage.

This kind of Biblical interpretation is nothing new. Indeed, the Apostles themselves were not averse to pointing out similar kinds of typologies. For instance, Peter asserted that the Biblical Flood was actually a Type of Christian Baptism. (1 Peter 3:21) Likewise, Paul (Romans 5:14) pointed out that Adam was a Type of Jesus Christ -- “the Second Adam” -- while the author of the Letter to the Hebrews affirmed that Melchizedek was a Type of Christ in His high priestly ministry. (Hebrews 5-7)

In other words, typological interpretations of Old Testament persons or events can be found within the pages of the New Testament itself. Often such typologies are useful in helping to explain exceedingly difficult concepts, a fact which the New Testament authors knew and exploited.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that typological interpretations have been a favorite among Christians for many centuries. Indeed, it is one of my favorites; it’s really handy when the theological concepts become deep while the Biblical foundations remain thin. For instance, how are we to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words: “Take, eat; this is my body ... this is my blood”? (Matthew 26:26, 28) This question is a difficult one which many different Christians have approached from many different directions. In each case the Scriptural foundations have been thin, while interpretive understandings have been rooted in tradition, perspective and preconception.

Our Baptist brothers and sisters prefer to understand Jesus’ words metaphorically: the bread and wine remind them of Jesus, but they're not really his body and blood. As such, the elements are viewed as being merely tokens -- or symbols -- of obedience, of which they partake because Jesus so ordered it.

Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters prefer to understand Jesus’ words literally: the substance of the bread and wine has become the literal body and blood of Jesus. They understand this transformation as being necessary for the elements to convey the Real Presence of Jesus. In short, the bread and the wine are Jesus.

I want to propose another approach. I believe that we may reasonably understand Jesus’ words typologically: the body and blood of Jesus, as he was crucified on the cross, casts a shadow backward to the Last Supper and forward to our Communion Tables. When we come to the Altar and eat and drink with faith, we are blessed to encounter, through the Types of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus. As is true with all typologies, the shadow is less substantial than that which casts it; hence, the bread’s nature as bread is less important than Jesus’ affirmation of it as his body, and likewise the wine. By receiving the elements with our faith focused upon Christ, we make contact, through the shadow of the type, with that which cast the shadow: the Real Presence of Jesus.

© 2004, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved