Is Genesis 3:15 really the “Protevangelium”?
The question of whether or not Genesis 3:15 is the first proclamation of the Gospel has been the source of much debate. Traditionally, Genesis 3:15 is understood to be the first telling of the Gospel, which is attested to as early as Irenaeus in the second century A.D.1 Walton states in his commentary on Genesis, that based on the hermeneutics, the evidence is ambiguous. By examining this passage in its context and examining the authorial intent, there is nothing here to lead us to a specific Messianic expectation. “The Messianic expectation of Israel developed around a future king of David's line.”2 A passage that transcends its original context would have to be identified with authority elsewhere in Scripture. The New Testament makes no “first Gospel” connection with Genesis 3. The New Testament writers were masters at associating Old Covenant promises with New Covenant truths, yet they are silent on this passage. Walton concludes that because there is no authoritative link between the Messianic expectation of Christ and Genesis 3:15, it is therefore “haphazard to adopt a messianic interpretation of the text.”3
In keeping with the traditional interpretation of Genesis 3:15, Mathews believes this passage points to Christ as the “vindicator of the woman.”4 Because of the language of the passage, Mathews sees Genesis 3:15 as indicative of a “life-and-death struggle.”5 Words like “crush” and “strike” tell of a war beginning between humanity and its vile adversary. When God warns Cain that “sin is crouching at your door,” this alludes back to the struggle, in which the adversary won the first battle. Mathews takes language from the New Testament and makes connections between Genesis 3 and New Testament passages about Christ. According to Mathews, the “seed” in Genesis 3 is a direct reference to the Messiah. Paul used the term “seed” in Galatians 3 when he identified Christ as the “seed ultimately intended in the promissory blessing to Abraham.”6 He says that Jesus alluded to the passage in John 8 when he called the Pharisees “children of the Devil,” when they were supposed to be “the offspring of Abraham.”7 Mathews connects the “red dragon” in Revelation 12 to the serpent in Genesis 3. Because the serpent “opposes the believing community” and is “plotting the destruction of her child, the Messiah,” the serpent is destroyed by God in the end. Clearly Mathews hold that Genesis 3:15 is the prototype for the Christian Gospel.
Towns stands on the side of the traditional view along with Mathews. Throughout his systematic theology he cites Genesis 3:15 as the “first giving of the gospel.”8 He even sees Genesis 3:15 as speaking prophetically of the virgin birth of Christ. He holds that God introduces theological subjects in Scripture embryonically. Doctrines are first seen in “seed” form before they are fully developed.9 Towns says that God introduced the concept of salvation to mankind in the proto-evangelium. Imbedded within that concept, was the foretelling of the birth of the redeemer from the seed of woman. Because God knew the biology of man, He would not have confused this statement. If the birth of the redeemer was to be by conventional means, he would have come from the seed of man. According to Towns, the purpose and means for the death of Christ and the judgment of Satan are wrapped up in this first telling of the Gospel.
On this subject I am conflicted. When I look at the passage from my vantage point, two thousand years after the cross, it makes sense to see the Gospel in seed form. God knew all along that a plan of redemption for Adam and Eve would be necessary. Based on the whole of Scripture, it seems right to see Messianic implications for this passage. It gives me comfort to look at Genesis 3:15 as the proto-evangelium. However, when I look at this passage in light of its original audience, context, and authorial intent, it is not that far reaching. I agree with Walton's thought that Messianic expectations would not be in view before the time of David. If I were a Hebrew living in the tenth century B.C., it would be hard to see all of the things the traditional view claims are contained in this passage. Furthermore, the fact that the New Testament makes no specific reference to the proto-evangelium says a great deal. The goal of the New Testament authors was to tie New and Old Covenants together. Why would they miss such an opportunity connect the New Adam to the Old Adam? I think perhaps Towns has the right idea. God's plan of redemption is there from the very beginning of Scripture. It does not, however come into full view until later in redemptive history. The issue of whether or not Genesis 3:15 is the first telling of the Gospel may be a matter of context and revelation rather than a definitive yes or no question.
1Walton, John H. 2001. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. pg. 234
3Ibid. pg. 235
4Mathews, Kenneth A. 1996. The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26. pg. 247
5Ibid. pg. 245
6Ibid. pg. 248
8Towns, Elmer. 2002. Theology for Today. pg. 162
9Ibid. pg. 185-186
Walton, John H. 2001. The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, Michigan. Print.
Kenneth A. 1996. The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26. Broadman
and Holman Publishers: United States of America. Print.
Towns, Elmer. 2002. Theology for Today. Cengage Learning: Mason, Ohio. Print.