Does Proverbs contain a blatant contradiction? It tells us to answer a fool according to his folly, and in the very next verse, not to answer a fool according to his folly. Stay tuned to find out on Unapologetic.
If you’ve had very many conversations about the Bible, you assuredly have heard someone say that it contains contradictions. Now, often when people say this, it’s helpful to say, “Well can you show me one? Can you show me a contradiction?” Because it’s really easy for someone to throw out a claim like that and have no idea if it’s true or why it’s true. You’ll actually be surprised that, when people make that claim, they can’t actually even show you one.
Now this is often true for people like Mormons and followers of the LDS faith. They’ll say, “The Bible’s been corrupted. You can’t trust it.” You can ask them, “Well what’s a part that’s been corrupted? What part don’t you trust?” Often they can’t actually point to anything. They don’t have an idea. They’ve just heard that claim. This is true often with other non-Christians too, like atheists, who will say the Bible contains contradictions. Well where? Show me one. That should be our first reply. Our first response should not be to start defending the truthfulness of scripture. Make the other person prove their point. Show me a contradiction.
Now if they show you something that seems to be a contradiction, we can talk about that. Let’s actually talk about one example today. In Proverbs 26, verses 4 and 5, we read this:
“Don’t answer a fool according to his folly lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
Some people have said this appears to be a contradiction. One verse says to not answer a fool according to his folly and the next says to answer him according to his folly. Which is it? This seems like a blatant contradiction.
The author didn’t think it was a contradiction
The first thing to point out is the more blatant the contradiction seems, the less likely it’s a contradiction. Here’s what I mean by that. If you were to read a newspaper article that seemed to contain an incredibly blatant contradiction, would you think the author was just too dumb to realize that? Or would you think maybe there’s something else going on? Maybe I’ve misunderstood or maybe he’s getting at something else.
When something is back to back like these two verses, they’re verses 4 and 5, and they seem to say entirely opposite things, do we really think the writer was that dumb? That people didn’t realize that? Are we really that advanced today? Well no, we’re not. People weren’t automatically just dumb back in the ancient world either. I think the first thing we can say here is obviously the author didn’t think these were contradictory. They might seem contradictory on the face of it to us, but the fact that they’re included back to back I think strongly points out the fact that whoever wrote this did not think it was contradictory.
Now we also need to deal with the fact that these are proverbs, so we need to interpret literature according to its genre. Not everything in the Bible is a set of scientific, propositional statements like, “This thing weighs this much exactly and is this color and this long.” No, this is a proverb, which is a generally true wise saying. Proverbs are not laws; they’re not spiritual laws; they’re not laws of nature. So, they’re not always true. It’s always truthful wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that everything a proverb says is always true.
For instance, “Train up your child in the way he should go, and when he’s old, he won’t depart from it,” is not a promise. It is possible to train up a child in the way he should go, and when he’s old, he may depart from it. The thing is, it’s generally true that children who are well trained and raised and discipled do not depart from that. It’s a generally true wise saying. It’s a proverb.
Let’s come back to our two proverbs here: “Answer a fool according to his folly,” and, “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly.” The first thing to point out, I think, in addition to what we’ve said so far, is that we, today, have proverbs that seem contradictory, and we may use both of them in a given day. For instance, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” And “if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.” On the face of it, these say contradictory things, and yet, don’t we know they actually mean different things?
What we’re addressing when we say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is actually not the same type of situation we’re addressing with “out of sight, out of mind.” Absence makes the heart grow fonder when you’re attracted to that thing, when you have affections for that thing. But, on the other hand, something you don’t have attractions to or affections for, if it’s out of sight, it’s probably out of mind. You’re not going to think about that. On the face of it, these seem to be contradictory, but they’re not because we know they’re talking about different types of things.
Another example from today would be, “Birds of a feather flock together.” But, we also say, “Opposites attract.” So which is it? Is it like things attract or is it opposite things attract? Well, it depends on the circumstance.
Life is messy. I think that’s something we need to understand. Proverbs, even our proverbs today, that may seem contradictory, cover multiple facets of life. They express the full range of human experience. We find that in the Book of Proverbs too. It addresses so much, from happiness and bitterness, to wisdom and gluttony and sloth, and joy, and everything in between. It hits the full range of human emotion and of human experience. I think that’s what we’re seeing here also: that these two proverbs are expressing different things in different situations.
Each proverb helps us understand the other
Really, that takes us to our second big point today. The first one was the author didn’t think they were contradictory. They’re back to back. That’s kind of hard to miss. Two, each proverb helps us understand the other. I actually think it’s less likely that we would understand one of the proverbs here if we didn’t have both. Now you may be thinking, “Okay, but they seem contradictory, so how are we even understanding any of them?”
Well, let’s use the fact that the author didn’t think they were contradictory to encourage us to press in and ask some more questions of how to understand them. Really maybe we can say they’re both true. Now what would they be saying? Since they’re both true, how can we understand them? How does each one help us understand the other?
The first thing I think to point out is that they’re talking about different facets of experience, different parts of human experience. There is a time when you should not answer a fool according to his folly. The proverb actually tells us what that is.
Don’t answer a fool according to his folly, in the way that you’ll be like him. The other proverb says we should answer a fool according to his folly. Why is that? When is that? When it’s possible that if we don’t, the fool will be wise in his own eyes. Maybe we would even say: in the eyes of other people. We don’t want that to be the case.
I also think there’s kind of an equivocation here, a use of the same word in different ways. “According to” I think is used differently. In the first example, “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly lest you be like him.” I think what that’s saying is, don’t answer a fool in the same way that he’s foolish. Don’t make the same foolish mistake in answering him that he made in requiring you to answer.
But the second one, “Answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes,” I think “according to” there means we’re responding to the act of foolishness. Our according to, the way we answer, is in response to the foolishness, but not like verse 4, it is not in the same way he was foolish. We’re addressing the foolishness. We are not being foolish ourselves. We need to be careful of that.
I think when we put these proverbs back to back, we see that the author didn’t think they were contradictory and that each one helps us understand the other. The first one is saying, “Don’t get on the level of the fool when you answer him.” The second one is saying, “But, when you answer the fool, and you should sometimes, do it in such a way and in the case where he’s not looking wise in his own eyes, where he’s not seeming wise in the eyes of perhaps other people who are watching.”
Now how would this practically play out? I think some examples would be helpful. The first one for instance: if a fool is calling someone a name, they’re saying, “You can’t trust that guy. He’s a horrible person,” he’s just calling names in this case. He hasn’t actually made an argument. He hasn’t provided evidence. What we should not do is say, “No, you’re an idiot. You’re not a good person.” Once again, we’ve got on the level of the fool and replied, and not in a helpful way. He’s drug us down into the mud with him.
I also think there’s an aspect here of how this comes out when we defend scripture. Someone will say, oftentimes, “The Bible’s not true. The Bible’s not the word of God.” We could say, “Okay, well I’ll grant you that. How can we reason to get to a conclusion where scripture is true according to your worldview and your presuppositions?” What we’ve actually done now is we’ve adopted, for the sake of this argument at lest, the viewpoint of the fool who says there is no God, and said, “Okay, we’ll try and figure this out on your playing field,” instead of on the ground that God has revealed in scripture.
We shouldn’t reason according to how the fool reasons in order to prove the truthfulness of God and of scripture. God has revealed himself to us. That is the position from which we reason. We can’t jettison those things that God has revealed in his world in order to hopefully make what would be a more persuasive case to the non-Christian.
“Don’t answer a fool according to his folly lest you be like him yourself.” Let’s not get down on their level. Let’s not call names or whatever it is. But, at the same time, the second verse says, “Answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes.” How do we do that? I think a great example would be when a non-Christian or an atheist complains about evil.
What they might say at two different times, or maybe in the same conversation, is, “The God of the Old Testament was immoral. He wiped everyone out at the flood. He demanded the destruction of the Canaanites. He asked Abraham, he commanded Abraham, to kill Isaac. He is a bloodthirsty monster.” Then, if you start pushing them on their moral view, they’ll say, “Morality doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as right and wrong. We decide for ourselves. Abortion may be wrong for you. That’s good. But it might be right for me. It’s a subjective type of thing. We all decide for ourselves.”
I hope you see those are contradictory views. Because, if morality is the type of thing we all decide for ourselves, then what God did in the Old Testament wasn’t actually wrong; it was just something this person didn’t like. You can’t have it both ways.
I think what we can do is we can use the fool’s folly here when they say, for instance, that God was evil in the Old Testament, to point out their other problems. Let’s get in their worldview like it’s a car and see if we can drive it somewhere. Where does this take us? At first glance, it shows us that they can’t have this view that morality is subject. If what God did in the Old Testament was evil for God to do, then morality can’t be the type of thing I just decide for myself. We’ve got to be consistent there.
More than that, if you’re rejecting the idea of God and then saying there is a moral standard and God broke it in the Old Testament, if he existed, where do you get this idea of morality? Where do you get a moral law if there’s not a moral law giver? You don’t. You don’t have laws without lawgivers, so there isn’t such a thing as an ought—something we ought to do, that we should do, that is required of us—unless there’s someone to put that obligation on us. There’s not a law without a lawgiver. There’s not a requirement in this way without a requirement giver.
This whole idea that there is morality in the world and that God did evil things in the Old Testament requires there to be a God. We’ve talked about this several times before. I think this is a fitting example of how you can answer a fool according to his folly. When the fool is assuming that things exist that don’t fit in his worldview, we answer him according to his folly. We say, “You can’t have that. You can’t actually have morality in your worldview because you don’t have the Christian God.” That’s important.
It also happens in other areas. Most atheists will assume the existence of morality, logic, and the consistency of natural laws. But those are very hard things to find places for in a non-Christian worldview. What is logic on a non-Christian worldview? How does someone analyze evidence and come to a conclusion if God doesn’t exist? They don’t, because there’s not a “them.” There’s just a big series of billiard balls running into each other. They’re just determined. They’re just a meat machine, you might say. If God does not exist, then we don’t have souls and materials things don’t exist. Yet, all too often, the atheist wants to make the claim that they’ve analyzed the evidence, they’ve made a decision, they have decided that God does not exist because there is not evidence, they would say.
What’s a “they?” If their view is true, then everything is just the product of chemical reactions and molecules bouncing into each other, and random mutation and natural selection. There’s no choice. There’s no freedom of the will in an atheistic worldview. The phrase, “I evaluated the evidence. I made a decision,” is ultimately meaningless on an atheistic worldview. We can point that out. We can answer the fool, the person who denies the existence of God, according to his folly lest he be continuing to think he’s wise in his own wisdom. We do that when we point out that people are assuming things that don’t actually fit in their worldview.
We’ve covered a lot today, but the first thing to point out is don’t assume the Bible contains a gross contradiction. Let’s give grace to the author just like we would to any other author, especially if the two verses that are supposed to be contradictory are back to back. Of course someone would have realized that.
In fact, what that points to is that each one helps us understand the other. We should not get on the fool’s level. In his foolishness, we should not respond in that way, but we should, for his own sake and for the sake of people listening, point out where he is foolish (though do this winsomely) and explained that, oftentimes, lest he continue to think he’s wise in his own eyes. Let’s confront him or her with a biblically-based, truthful response that points to the Gospel, that points to the truthfulness of Christianity.
As an example, often this will occur when the non-Christian is assuming things that they can’t actually have if their worldview is correct, like morality and logic and natural laws and the consistency of nature, and a soul, and a mind, and all these things.
I hope this was helpful, and I’ll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.