How does one answer a fool?

by K.W. Leslie, 05 October

Proverbs 26.4-5.

Whenever someone claims the bible never, ever contradicts itself, I like to take ’em to this pair of proverbs.

Proverbs 26.4-5 KWL
4 Don’t respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest you be compared to them.
5 Respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest they become wise in their own eyes.

Thing is, whenever I do this, the person immediately attempts to explain how they don’t contradict one another. Oh, they’ll do a terrible job of it. It’ll get ridiculous and illogical. But they do try.

Because at some point in their past, they heard the bible never contradicts itself. They liked the idea. So they made it a core belief: One of the things which defines their Christianity, which defines their trust in the bible, is this ground-floor idea it never contradicts itself. Shake that belief and now they gotta rethink their belief system from the ground up.

But there’s something in human nature where it’s just easier to go into full-on denial: “No it doesn’t contradict itself, and here’s why…” Instead of deal with the problem, they’d rather pretend it isn’t there.

Except it is. And it’s gonna bug them. And it’s either gonna unravel their Christianity, and even their trust in God; or it’s gonna kill their faith altogether, and they’re gonna pretend they trust God, but they no longer do.

Or, which is wisest, they’re gonna deal with the contradiction. ’Cause the editor of Proverbs put these two proverbs of Solomon right next to one another for a reason. And the reason is really simple: Depending on the circumstances, sometimes we follow verse 4, and sometimes verse 5.

Yep. The editor was trying to teach us situational ethics. Something a number of Christians insist isn’t a biblical idea; insist it’s even antithetical to the sort of absolute truth in the bible. Well, it’s not. And it’s probably a good idea to start doubting those absolutists, ’cause not everything they claim to be absolute, is. They’re way too quick to build their houses on sand.

The purpose of Proverbs.

At the very beginning of Proverbs, the editor explains why she put this book together. She’s not actually Solomon. She included lots of Solomon’s proverbs, but also included a bunch of other people’s proverbs: There’s also Agur ben Jakeh, Pr 30.1 Lemuel’s mother, Pr 31.1 and various anonymous wise people. Pr 24.23 But as for why we learn wisdom in the first place, Solomon probably wrote this bit:

Proverbs 1.1-7 KWL
1 Wise sayings of Solomon ben David, Israel’s king:
2 To know wisdom and discipline. To recognize wise speech.
3 To learn how to think in terms of rightness, justice, and fairness.
4 To give cleverness to the naïve, discernment and purpose to the young.
5 The wise must listen and add to their education, and an attentive person must get good advice.
6 To pay attention to a wise saying, satire, sages’ words, and puzzles.
7 Revering the LORD is how we begin to know wisdom.
Discipline? The stupid have no respect for it.

Proverbs are to teach people how to think like a wise person. ’Cause a wise person thinks. Whereas a foolish person reduces wisdom to a series of formulas, then tries to unthinkingly, robotically follow the formulas. You know, like certain Christians try to apply the bible’s proverbs.

And in case anybody does try to mindlessly apply square-peg proverbs to round holes, the editor purposefully chose to put two contradictory proverbs right next to one another. Which verse do we follow, 4 or 5? Well, we gotta decide. And we gotta use wisdom to decide.

See the proverbs—and really all biblical wisdom—are situational. They apply in some situations. Not every situation. There are exceptions—and sometimes you’re gonna find other proverbs which address these exceptions. And if you put the two of them together, once again they’re gonna contradict one another.

Proverbs 1.28 KWL
“Then they call me, and I don’t answer.
They get up early to seek me, and don’t find me.”
Proverbs 8.17 KWL
“Those who love me, I love them.
Those who get up early to seek me, find me.”

This contradiction has a really easy explanation, ’cause if you read the context of these verses, it’s super obvious. In the first passage, wisdom gets personified (and, female pronouns aside, we Christians tend to think of Wisdom personified as the Holy Spirit; hence the red letters), and is rebuking those who densely won’t follow her. If calamity strikes, and they panic and call out to Wisdom, it’s too late; they’re not gonna find her. Whereas in chapter 8, Wisdom is speaking of those who do follow her. Different situation; different proverbs.

Thoughtlessly apply a proverb to every circumstance, as if it’s a biblical command which does apply to every circumstance, and you’re being a fool. And Proverbs has many choice things to say about fools who misquote proverbs.

Proverbs 26.7 KWL
The legs of a cripple don’t work.
Same with a proverb in fools’ mouths.

A verse, y’might notice, which comes right after those two contradictory verses about answering fools.

Now, you can believe the bible has no errors, yet still recognize the use of proverbs depends on the situation. Problem is, too many inerrantists don’t know how to make this distinction. They want to show how devoted they are to the idea of inerrancy, so they tend to make broad statements like, “The bible has no errors, no contradictions, no inconsistencies, whatsoever.” Even though, for fun, I could pull up a bunch of proverbs and show you dozens of contradictions—because there’s a season for everything, Ec 3.1 and different proverbs apply to different seasons.

Hiding the contradiction.

Unfortunately, throughout history, people have unwisely missed the point. And in some cases they tried to eliminate this contradiction.

Sometimes they did so by simply translating it wrong. Fr’instance the Pharisees. When they translated the bible into Greek, they “fixed” this verse like so.

Proverbs 26.4-5 KWL (from the Septuagint)
4 Don’t answer a fool, for that’s foolishness; you’ll become like them.
5 Instead answer a fool against their foolishness. They won’t appear wise to themselves.

And when they translated the bible into Aramaic, they “fixed” it thisaway.

Proverbs 26.4-5 Lamsa Bible
4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be also like him.
5 But answer a fool according to your wisdom, lest he think in himself that he is wise.

For the longest time, the Pharisees claimed verse 4 (“Don’t”) only applies to secular things, whereas verse 5 (“Do”) only applies to religious things. So it’s okay to let greedy people cheat their employees out of fair wages; that‘s business, and secular. But the minute these fools claim God meant for them to be wealthy, and for their employees to be poor, they’ve crossed the line into religion, and now we can critique and correct them.

Well, that’s one way of trying to explain which verse applies to which situation. But that’s likewise a pretty wooden way to interpret the verse. (And permits a lot more evil in this world than Christians oughta.)

Largely you’re gonna find Christians interpret this verse precisely the same way I do: In some situations we follow verse 4, in others verse 5. But unlike me, they’re gonna avoid calling it “a contradiction in the bible” as much as they can get away with. They wanna still be able to claim there are no contradictions in the bible. This only seems to be a contradiction. Like the Life Application Study Bible puts it:

These two verses seem to contradict, but they actually are purposely demonstrating the contradiction between reason and folly. A fool remains a fool whether he is answered or not. The wise person has a choice to make depending on what he or she sees is the greatest need of the fool. Some fools don’t deserve an answer because they are clearly not in a mood to listen, and those who try to answer them will simply stoop to their level. There are other situations where common sense says to answer the fool in order to expose his or her pride and folly. LASB at Pr 26.4-5 

They “seem to contradict,” but actually “demonstrate the contradiction”—which is pretty much the same thing. But by phrasing it this way, at least inerrantists can’t claim they didn’t throw ’em a bone.

So: Discern the situation wisely.

Still, let’s follow the Life Application Study Bible’s advice. What’s the greatest need of the fool? Are we dealing with a thick-headed person who won’t be swayed by evidence or reason? Seems verse 4 would apply to them: Trying to convince ’em otherwise is a waste of breath. We’ll get sidetracked into all sorts of stupid digressions.

Are we dealing with someone who’s leading other people astray? Someone people really ought not listen to? Seems verse 4 applies to the misguided teacher, and verse 5 applies to the mistaught listeners. In some cases it’d be an utter waste of time to engage a fool, but we need to do it anyway for the sake of everybody else in the room. Which is likely why Jesus engaged with certain pig-headed Pharisees; not because he’d ever win them over, but because he was trying to win the room.

Are we dealing with a teachable or correctable fool? (I know; sounds like an oxymoron, ’cause if they’re teachable they’re not so much a fool.) Now verse 5 applies. Correct ’em before they wander further afield.

How about one of those folks who look teachable—who claim to be open-minded, who just wanna get at the truth—and it turns out they’re friendly and diplomatic, but just as set in their foolish views as any arrogant jerk? Well, as soon as you realize you’re throwing pearls to swine, Mt 7.6 stop. Friendly fools are still fools. Verse 4 applies to them same as it does to jerks.

As you can see, we can’t turn verse 4 into an absolute; yet there are Christians who won’t debate anyone for fear of violating it. Likewise we can’t turn verse 5 into an absolute; yet there are Christians who debate absolutely everybody. Both proverbs are wisdom, and we gotta use our God-given wisdom to decide which to apply when.

And allow the Holy Spirit to override your decision. Because you might think you’re dealing with an impossible or receptive fool, but the Spirit knows which one they really are, and might tell you to challenge them anyway—or be silent. The Spirit knows best. And respecting the LORD is the first principle of wisdom. Ps 111.10, Pr 9.10 Never be so dense as to ignore him.

Bible difficulties.