The First Gospel: Genesis 3:15

Stomping the Snake

Genesis 3:15 (ESV) reads “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The question is: Is this verse really the “Protevangelium”?  Yes or No.

Walter Wifall, in his article, presents several point of views on whether or not Genesis 3:15 is the Protevangelium. He first points out that traditional Christian exegesis interprets Genesis 3:15 as the Protevangelium. Wifall (exegetically) defines the Protevangelium, as relates to Genesis 3:15, as “the ‘seed’ of the woman was ‘Christ,’ who was prophesied as the one who would ‘trample on the head’ of the ‘serpent’ or ‘Satan’” (Wilfall 361). Protevangelium means “first gospel,” as in it is the first reference of the Messiah is to come (at this point in the Bible) to defeat death, sin, hell, and Satan. In this definition that Wifall has provided, as he states, this verse of Scripture is the Protevangelium, or the “first gospel.” However, Wifall recognizes there are recent dissenters to this traditional view. C. Westermann rejects the notion that this verse has messianic implications by saying “It would be advisable not to use the term Protevangelium in connection with Genesis 3:15.” G. Von Rad also disagrees with the traditional interpretation of the passage and says it does not “agree with the sense of the passage.” Von Rad goes on to explain that the serpent is a real serpent and not Satan and that the traditional view has “mythologized” the serpent mentioned here. Also, Von Rad says that the traditional view has no support in its claim because the context of the verse in surrounded by curses and not blessings or promises. Wifall refutes the dissenters of the traditional view with a proper study of Davidic, royal framework (focusing on Israel and its history) that is deeply rooted in the OT and interwoven into the NT.

Douglas MacCallum Judisch too suggests that Genesis 3:15 is really the Protevangelium. Judisch calls Genesis 3:15 the “fountainhead of all messianic prophecy.” Judisch uses other similar passages in the Old Testament to show the relationship between the seed in Genesis 3:15 and Christ as the Messiah. Just as Christ was the seed of the woman, He is the Son of David who would restore the kingdom of Israel and be a light to the heathen (Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 49:6; Luke 2:32), who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised (notice the similarity in language as to Gen. 3:15) for our iniquities, by whose stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). Judisch suggests “the seed” is exclusive to the God-man, Jesus Christ. The language of the verse and the purpose of Christ’s mission are connected. As Judisch points out, Jesus didn’t come to tell us what to do and what works to perform to avoid the dominion of darkness, He came to destroy the kingdom of darkness, first and foremost. He came to redeem and reconcile a people unto Himself and to do that he had to put some separation between mankind and evil just as God had promised to put some separation between the woman’s offspring and the serpent.

Ken Schurb, in his article, compares and contrasts Martin Luther and John Calvin’s point of views regarding this text. First, simply note that both of these historic reformers do not agree on whether or not Genesis 3:15 is the Protevangelium. According to Schurb, the main issue of this passage is “who or what was the ‘seed’ of the woman?” Martin Luther’s interpretation of this verse, as he taught, is that it is the Protevangelium in that it does speak about Christ coming to crush sin, death, and Satan. To Luther, this brings about a great comfort. Luther also supported his claim for this verse to be a messianic prophecy by noting the frequency in the Old Testament in which a person would be referred to as the “seed of a man,” not a woman as seen here. Luther was adamant that this seed could be none other than Christ. John Calvin, in his commentary, takes on a different approach. In his commentary, Calvin first says that this verse shows us the hostility between mankind and serpents. Then he proceeds to allude of Satan’s defeat but there is still uncertainty on Calvin’s part regarding the word “seed.” How “is a collective noun to be understood as one man only” is Calvin’s contention. Through “experience,” probably meaning hindsight, Calvin arrives that the conclusion that “all men” (his original definition of ‘seed’) do not conquer Satan. Calvin also says this verse introduces the idea of “headship,” while Luther did not concede that. Schurb says “The contrast between Calvin’s view and Luther’s, as set forth in their respective commentaries, becomes most apparent when one considers intentionality. Luther thought God intended in Genesis 3:15 to predict the coming of one person, the Seed. Calvin could say that God wanted to predict victory, but the details of the report were sketchy. It stood to reason that God Himself would have to intervene; hence, the verse had an indirect Messianic character. But Calvin arrived at this Messianic significance in part because of a lesson learned from the experience of generations who failed in the struggle with Satan. Calvin gave no indication that Adam and Eve, who lacked such experience, as they stood naked before God, could have come to the Messianic meaning.” In summary, Luther understood this as the Protevangelium, and Calvin understood this as the general human fight against Satan as a picture of what Christ would eventually do. It would be important to note that Calvin’s view seems to evolve into a sort of messianic prophecy.

In my opinion, I believe Genesis 3:15 is the Protevangelium. I believe it is a promise from God in which Christ will come to defeat the powers of sin, death and Satan. It is comforting to see that in just the first three chapters of the Bible that God is already promising redemption for mankind. I also believe Genesis 3:15 is the Protevangelium because several different New Testament verses seem to refer back to Genesis 3:15, such as Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law,” and 1 John 3:8, “He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning.  For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.”  We were delivered to death by the first Adam, and delivered to life by the second Adam.  This “first gospel” brings about hope, looking to the future, in the garden for fallen man in that a Savior is to come and offer salvation. In hindsight of the fulfillment of messianic prophecy, it almost seems irrational to not interpret this as the first gospel and see this as the first prophecy of Christ.

Bibliography:

Judisch, Douglas MacCallum Lindsay. “The Protoevangelium and Concordia Theological Seminary.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 60, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1996): 75-93. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2013).

Schurb, Ken. “Sixteenth-century Lutheran-Calvinist conflict on the Protevangelium.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 54, no. 1 (January 1, 1990): 25-47. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2013).

Wifall, Walter. “Genesis 3:15: A Protevangelium?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 36, no. 3 (July 1974): 361-365. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2013).

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