What Is the Difference between Semiotics and Typology?

Gee, it's another one of my lunatic letters to a friend! Will I never learn?! Will my long-suffering friends never tell me to get a life??!

As H. Richard Niebuhr once said of his brother (note my sly self-comparison to Reinhold Niebuhr), "I do wish Reinie would think before he writes!"

Standard disclaimer: spring of '99, reprinted by permission.

After all the detours, derailments, and dislocations of these past few years, these recent developments feel even better than you might imagine. "If the way be clear," I could be loading up a Ryder truck soon. We are talking about rural and small town Midwestern folk; being at home among the rolling hills and bluffs; and living on a gravel road six miles from the nearest state highway. Talk about "going home again"!

And you, sir, deserve a gold star for putting up with me through all this. Yes, like a back-up from the soul's septic tank, sanctimony does have a way of surfacing so as to camouflage fears and defensiveness, does it not? I have certainly been "sanctimoniously yours" more than once, and since this is Lent, I guess I ought to confess to you my sins against you on this count. I remind myself of a schizo-lalling young lady who once commented to me regarding one of her own incoherent remarks, "Oh, I got four different messages at once on that one!"

I like your latest pastor's column, where I think you hit the nail right on the head: "At one time or another all of us resist change, especially when we are tired, or ill, or under severe stress." That is me in these past several months to a T, as if you hadn't already figured! Your providentially surfacing letters have meant a lot to me in recent months, and if I have sometimes bespattered you with the backwash of my severe stress, well, I guess people we are pastoring sometimes do that to us, don't they? (Rather as a psychiatrist may become the butt of "transference.") And I feel you have certainly been a "pastor by mail" to me these past several months. Which, once again, I appreciate very deeply.

You ask, "What is the difference between semiotics and typology?" This is an excellent question, and goes to the heart of the history of "signs & symbols" as a topic in theology. (Oh Lord, now watch Burgess shift into classroom lecture mode...)

A christocentric typological approach to OT exegesis goes way, way back in the Church. Justin Martyr springs to mind as a prime example, and to him this kind of typology is a key aspect of the unity between the old covenant and the new. Even older Christian use of typology can be found in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where Christ is the typological fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures. Of course Christ as fulfillment of the scriptures is a common theme throughout the NT and the apostolic church, but in Hebrews the typology angle occupies center stage.

The notion of signs also goes way back in the scriptures, with the core notion being an act or a thing, apprehended by the senses (primarily but hardly exclusively by sight), from which a practical conclusion can be drawn regarding the will, or the actions, of God. Consider Joseph and all those dreams; or Gideon and the fleece; or any of the many "signs and wonders" in the Bible, a set phrase in the Hebrew (othoth umophethim) which is taken over in the LXX, and thence into the NT, as semeia kai terata. The preferred term in Mk (also in the other synoptics??) is the dynameis or "mighty works" of Christ; but in Jn the notion of sign is brought to its theological and christological climax within the Bible, as Christ works a series of signs (semeia) which point to His oneness with His Father, and (for those who can see with the eyes of faith) to the believers' oneness with the Father in Christ.

The church fathers, almost without exception, merely recapitulate these biblical uses of the notion of "signs" until St. Augustine, AD 397, wrote the original "semiotic handbook," entitled On Christian Doctrine. (Last section finished only in AD 425.) Another key writing where Augustine develops his thinking on signs is his book On the Trinity. And there are other relevant writings of his, such as On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed; and a dialogue with his son Adeodatus entitled, I believe, On the Teacher (that is, Christ as the Inner Teacher at work in all insight gained through signs).

Augustine is of course drawing on the biblical uses of "sign"; but his breakthrough insight is to invoke also aspects of Aristotelian and Stoic approaches to signs and to logic. It can be argued that Augustine was the first thinker to expand the notion of "sign" to cover language in general; texts in general; human thinking and activity in general; and even natural processes and creaturely being in general.

Augustine defines a sign as a twofold structure in which the signum or sign is anything perceived which calls to mind some res significata, some thing signified, which may or may not be present, perceived, or even perceptible. So a sign can signify something unseen or absent. You can see how this definition sets up a "ladder" by which to climb from the visible realm to the invisible.

(Visible and invisible... Cf. the typology of Hebrews, with the ascended Christ in the heavenly temple, of which the visible earthly temple was only a copy. This "ladder-like" interplay between visible and invisible seems to be built into notions such as typology or sign. Cf. also Plato!)

At times, as in sections of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine leans toward restricting "sign" phenomena to the sign-mongering activities of human intelligence. But at other times, as especially in On the Trinity, Augustine inclines toward a view of all creation as a seamless web of signs: every creature is a sign, and its signifieds are signs of further signifieds, and so on ad infinitum, with every such sequence of "sign behind sign behind sign behind sign" leading back ultimately to God as the sole Signified who is not a sign of anything further beyond Himself.

You can see how this latter, more inclusive view of signs might give rise to a mystical, indeed almost sacramental view of the universe-- a "take" on Augustine and his neoplatonism which indeed had widespread currency throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes commingled with quite divergent neoplatonist views derived from the writings of one Pseudo-Dionysius. (Ps-D's brand of neoplatonism is a first cousin to certain aspects of the Jewish kabbalah.)

But whether under this more inclusive view, or under the more restrictive view of signs as deliberate products of a rational intellect, Augustine took Christian worship as one central application of his notion of signs. And of course "Christian worship" means, at rock bottom, Word and sacrament.

So here we get the definition of a sacrament as "a visible sign of an invisible grace," and the notion of sign thus developed played a major role in the theology of the sacraments right up through the eucharistic controversies of the Reformation, with RC transubstantiation vs. Lutheran real presence vs. Calvinist spiritual presence vs. Zwinglian "real absence."

And so under Augustine's analysis of Christian worship, we also get the notion of signs applied to the interpretation and proclamation of the Scriptures. Here too, the Augustinian "sign" left a deep imprint on the disciplines of exegesis and homiletics. For part of Augustine's approach-- outlined in detail in On Christian Doctrine-- was to apply this notion of sign to such traditional approaches as allegorical and typological interpretation of the Scriptures.

So here we come at last to your queried connection between semiotics and typology. And it too remained an influential connection down through the Middle Ages. Then the Protestant Reformers chopped out significant pieces of the allegorical approach. And historical criticism, whether intentionally or not, dealt a body blow to much of the rest of the whole "allegorical and/or typological" tradition of biblical exegesis, leaving the modern exegete with a rather sparse, dry, "left-brain" repertoire of linguistic study, archaeological digs, historical research, and a grab-bag of critical methodologies. A shift which I see as "one step forward, two steps back" for exegesis.

I guess you could say that part of my interest in semiotics has to do with restoring an intellectually rigorous "right-brain" perspective to the mix. (How I detest those "pop psychology" terms, "right-brain" and "left-brain"! But they do serve as a convenient shorthand.) Hence my interest in traditional, pre-critical approaches to exegesis, such as typology and allegory. Hence my interest in neoplatonism, the kabbalah, etc. Hence my interest in Goethe's approach to science, which is based on qualities rather than quantities, and on holistic perception instead of on mathematical analysis: a sort of "phenomenology of nature."

Presently I am poking my nose into Coleridge, the most intelligent and theologically informed of the English Romantic poets-- Coleridge on imagination, another piece to the puzzle? The English Romantics were trying to unleash certain forces in modern culture, and where they failed, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones very nearly succeeded. Though the Sixties were too "right-brain," I would like to see the unleashing of forces as strongly Apollonian as they are Dionysian.

Actually, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, had some not unintelligent things to say about this in his manifesto. Though he was wrongheaded to think the solution lay in letter bombs, instead of in (to quote Chairman Mao) "a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power."

Gee, am I sounding like some crazy, wild-eyed radical talking about spiritual renewal, or what?!!

Books on all this...

Well, until a few years ago Augustine's "semiotic handbook," On Christian Doctrine, was hard to come by, but last I looked, D.W. Robertson's translation was available in the religion section at Border's.

On the medieval view of all creation as a web of signs and symbols, there are a couple of good (if somewhat dismissive) chapters in Johan Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages.

On allegorical interpretation? That's a toughie, I guess it's scattered in bits and pieces here and there. I know Thomas Oden at Drew is editing a series of volumes which will accompany the biblical text with excerpts from (or digests of?) a wide spectrum of patristic commentaries. I believe the volumes on Mark and Romans came out within these past six or eight months. Have you seen them? I haven't yet, but if they live up to my hopes, they may provide a good "window" on this sort of approach, a post-critical, steeped-in-tradition alternative to the rather dry "Interpreter's Bible."

Well, once again I do ramble on and on, though this time I hope I am writing lucidly and irenically. Hope you get out of this something interesting on semiotics and typology and Word and sacrament.

Thanks once again for The Loom of God. As by now you have gathered, it is right up my alley. The publisher, Plenum Press, has also put out a book entitled Classics in Semiotics, which I would consider one of the best introductory textbooks on modern semiotics.

(Terminological sidelight: The term "semiotics" was coined by Margaret Mead in the early 1960's. Back in the late 19th century, Charles Peirce was using the noun "semeiotic," which goes back even further, I think maybe to John Locke.)

I will let you know next time about ongoing developments on the pastoral call front. Lord, after life in the salt mines-- life so trying and hopeless that it drove me to mysticism!-- you can hardly imagine how eagerly I anticipate a return to all the joys and aggravations of the pastorate!!!

In Christ,

(s) Paul