Leo: Sermon 40.3

3. The twofold nature of Christ shown at the Temptation

For whom would he not dare to try, who did not keep from his treacherous attempts even on our Lord Jesus Christ? For, as the story of the Gospel has disclosed , when our Saviour, Who was true God, that He might show Himself true Man also, and banish all wicked and erroneous opinions, after the fast of 40 days and nights, had experienced the hunger of human weakness, the devil, rejoicing at having found in Him a sign of possible and mortal nature, in order to test the power which he feared, said, If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread Matthew 4:3 . Doubtless the Almighty could do this, and it was easy that at the Creator’s command a creature of any kind should change into the form that it was commanded: just as when He willed it, in the marriage feast, He changed the water into wine: but here it better agreed with His purposes of salvation that His haughty foe’s cunning should be vanquished by the Lord, not in the power of His Godhead, but by the mystery of His humiliation. At length, when the devil had been put to flight and the tempter baffled in all his arts, angels came to the Lord and ministered to Him, that He being true Man and true God, His Manhood might be unsullied by those crafty questions, and His Godhead displayed by those holy ministrations. And so let the sons and disciples of the devil be confounded, who, being filled with the poison of vipers, deceive the simple, denying in Christ the presence of both true natures, while they rob either His Godhead of Manhood, or His Manhood of Godhead, although both falsehoods are destroyed by a twofold and simultaneous proof: for by His bodily hunger His perfect Manhood was shown, and by the attendant angels His perfect Godhead.

There’s a lot of stuff crammed in here, not all of it obvious on a first run through. First, we get onto one of Leo’s big hobby-horses—the issue of the two natures of Christ. At this point in our history, the Christological controversies had not been fully “solved”—or at least not entirely adopted by the people. (You’ll note, of course, that this is a perennial problem that keeps popping up in each generation…) Leo’s major contribution to this debate is one of his letters which was sent to the Council of Chalcedon called “the Tome” where he sets forth in clear (and very Western) terms, the doctrine of the two natures. As often as he can in his sermons, Leo makes appeals to details of the text that, in his view, display both natures acting in Christ and the temptation is no different: hunger shows the humanity of Jesus while the ministry of angels shows his divinity.

A second item in play here is Leo’s reading of the Devil and his motives. The tack that Leo takes here is integral to the ‘Christus Victor’ reading where Jesus conceals his divinity, allowing Satan to believe him to be just a man. This is a strong and standard thread in the early readings and in monastic readings in particular. To truly understand this way of reading the temptation, it’s essential to go back to the sources that Leo is drawing upon, preeminently Irenaeus and John Cassian. Ireaneus discuss the temptation in terms of recapitulation; for him the temptation episode itself is a salvific event because it is here, at the beginning of his ministry, that Jesus breaks Satan’s great threefold temptation tool. Jesus’ obedience corrects Adam’s disobedience. The most pertinent section in Iraenaes is Adv. Haer. 5.21. John Cassian takes the same concepts and taps into it from the direction of ascetical theology. Here’s his take on it in Conf. 5.6 (you’ll have to scroll down to Chapter 6…).

So, both christology and ascetical theology are in play here. Probably the main detail that both of these turn upon is the fact that Jesus defeats Satan through purely non-miraculous means. From the Christological perspective, this emphasizes his humanity; from the ascetical theology perspective it emphasizes his role as our chief exemplar. After all, if he defeats the devil on purely human terms, we too (with divine assistance) are capable of accomplishing the same things.