Augustine said that Christians must have self-love, while Calvin insisted that self-denial was necessary to them. Though the literal meanings of the two words are opposite to each other, the connotations are interlinked because in the two theologians’ respective discourses each understanding expressed true faith. Why did they choose two words whose literal meanings are contrary? The causes are complex, with their use of rhetoric exerting a particularly important role. This paper attempts to interpret the divergence of Augustine's self-love and Calvin's self-denial from the perspective of rhetorical analysis.
Both Augustine and Calvin are great rhetoricians, and they used rhetoric methods to communicate with different groups, to respond to different problems, and chose different expressions which fitted their own contexts. Therefore, they used different terms.
In the era of Augustine, orthodox theology had not yet been formed, and the authority of the Catholic Church had not been established. There was a diversity of theological thought, and Pagan ideologies flourished. Facing this context, Augustine chose Neo-Platonism, which was receptive to Christian thought of the that period. Unlike pagan thought of that time, Neo-Platonism served as a conceptual tool to preach the Gospel. Neo-Platonists believe that self-love is the pursuit of the happiness of oneself, and that true happiness is to unite oneself with the supreme good, so self-love is the motivitating power which drives humans to seek the supreme good. Augustine put ivGospel messages into this theoretical framework, and said that true self-love is the love of God, because true happiness is gained only when humans love God. In fact, in Augustine’s writings and Neo-Platonic writings, the word “self-love” had different meanings: the self-love which Augustine had taught is a God-centered and self-sacrificial love, while Neo-Platonism only expressed a kind of self-centered love. However, Augustine overcame this difference in order to accommodate to the needs of his situation.
The context of Calvin was totally reversed: after more than one thousand years of development, the orthodox theology project was complete, predominant in all cultures, and excluded secular cultures; at the same time, however, the system increasingly ossified and became dogmatic and lost its initial vitality; the Roman Catholic Church monopolized theological interpretations and excluded all individual understandings which were different from them; additionally, the Reformation and Humanism rose, and formed a force against the Catholic Church. In this context, Calvin chose the popular humanistic forms of expression, and at the same time firmly maintained the Reformation’s theological position. Compared with “self-love”, the word “self-denial” seems popular and easily understood, close to human daily life. Also, this word comes directly from the Bible, and using it to interpret Christian reflects the Reformation theological method of sola scriptura “scripture alone”. On the one hand, Calvin used self-denial to respond to the Catholic Church, which had dogmatized Augustine’s theory of self-love, and took it as the theoretical basis of Merit Theology; on the other hand, he also responded to a group of humanists at that time who had an excessively optimistic attitude towards human’s potential and creativity. This kind of response was not a sharp dispute, but a gentle dialogue, in which multiple metaphors, analogies, ironies, and rhetorical questions were used, and readers were instructed to rethink their original conceptions. This is the humanist expression which fitted the context of that time.
Preaching the eternal truth and responding to the context are two fundamental tasks of theology, and rhetoric is the bridge between them. It shows us the successful cases where Augustine and Calvin preached the gospel successfully through the expressions which fitted their respective contexts. However, history is also full of cases of failure. How can we use rhetorical methods to respond to the changing contexts, on the premise of protecting the nature of the Gospel？It is a question that needs to be explored continuously.