On Typology: A Polemic

Tony Sig

A couple months ago, Ben Myers wrote a dandy post against the types of books that force students to read, not the primary sources about which they are supposedly to learn, but books talking about them.

“Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one?”

Spot on. To the “student book” I would like to add another problematic form of writing that does pretty much the same thing, with the results, if anything, being more sinister. This form is common in the same student books but exists outside of them as well: Namely, the organization of theologians and their thought into typologies. Myers again, in a more recent post, lays out a new atonement typology in patristic thought contra Aulen, yet having laid out a more complex scheme says:

“Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs.”

Myers, I think, sees the work that his typology can do, but in the very act of constructing a new one is able to see the myriad ways his improved scheme falls short of accurately and fully describing the works under discussion.

But it’s not simply that typology cannot accurately represent the works that fall under its sway that riles me up – surely one should be able to accurately summarize a view without it being some kind of betrayal –  it’s that once a theologian or work has been typologized and the scheme imbibed into the academic bloodstream, it becomes unnecessary for the student or pastor to bother with the thinkers who fall into the ‘bad’ category. As with the ‘student book,’ we no longer need bother with primary sources, but not having read them, we can roundly dismiss them!

A classic example of this can be found in the way Anselm is routinely marginalized as a proto-evangelical who (from scratch!) came up with “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Here we see not only the influence of Aulen but also the neo-patristic synthesis of modern Orthodox theologians. (One of David Bentley Hart’s lasting labor may be in his multiple defenses of Anselm and Duns Scotus against such typologies)

Speaking of the Orthodox, we also often see typology being used in service of declension narratives; yet using them this way works as a kind of shortcut past the harder work of constructing a disciplined genealogy. Even in the sustained work of Hans Frei or Karl Barth it’s not hard to feel that something is lost in the anti-liberalism – this despite the post-liberal I am.

The surest way around these problems seems to me to be to adhere to this dictum: Primary sources are for everyone, secondary sources are for specialists.


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