Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Answering a Fool

Answer not 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. (Pro. 26:4–5)
These two proverbs are memorable for the fact that, on a cursory reading, they seem flatly contradictory. One verse tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly, while the very next verse tells us to do what we were just told not to do. But were I an unbelieving skeptic diligently putting together one of those long lists of alleged Bible contradictions, I imagine I would probably leave these verses alone. They’d seem too easy – uncomfortably so. The apparent discrepancy is surely intentional on the part of the author. He knows what he’s doing.

But just how do we explain the proverbs? What are they getting at? One explanation that I’ve heard goes like this:
“The apparent contradiction in the two proverbs indicates that proverbs must be appropriately applied. One situation demands that we avoid playing the fool’s game by giving an answer, while another demands that we expose the folly so that the fool is not considered wise.”
That quote comes from the notes in the Reformation Study Bible (2005). Basically, the idea here is that different situations call for different things. In some circumstances, we should answer a fool according to his folly, but in other circumstances, we should not. And that’s a relativistic explanation (though I’m not using the term relativistic in any pejorative way; it just seems like the best designation).

But I’d like to propose a different take here. At first, it might sound like basically the same explanation, but I think it’s subtly different in an important way.

In my view, the two proverbs are not contradictory because the act of “answering a fool according to his folly” means something different in each one. The quote above says that “one situation demands that we avoid playing the fool’s game.” But what I’m saying is that every situation demands that we avoid this. There’s never a situation in which we should act contrary to verse 4, and there’s never a situation in which it’s wrong to act according to verse 5.

So in other words, I’m saying that we can always act according to both verses simultaneously. To say otherwise is actually to concede that the statements are in fact contradictory. In the Reformation Study Bible’s explanation, we apply each proverb differently based on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But in my explanation, we apply each proverb differently based on what the words actually mean.

When verse 4 tells us not to answer a fool according to his folly, I think it’s referring to what we might call “stooping down” to the fool’s level. If Tommy is making fun of Billy’s big ears, Billy shouldn’t respond by making fun of Tommy’s crooked teeth. He shouldn’t stoop to Tommy’s level. Otherwise, he would be “answering a fool according to his folly” in the way that makes him just as foolish. And verse 4’s prohibition of this kind of thing isn’t relativistic. There aren’t any circumstances when you should stoop to a fool’s level in this manner. You should always not do it.

Now what of verse 5? How do we answer a fool according to his folly in a right way? Various examples could be given, but here’s one that typically comes to my mind: Suppose an atheist says to you, “How can you believe in a God who would authorize the destruction of entire people groups in the Old Testament? How ghastly!” It would be appropriate to respond to this charge with something to this effect: “Why do you even give a rip what happened to those people groups, when your evolutionary worldview doesn’t assign any more value to human beings than it does to mosquitoes? Who cares what happens to mosquitoes? And who cares what happens to human beings?”

In that response, the atheist is being answered according to his folly; that is, according to his own beliefs, his own principles, his own worldview. You’re temporarily stepping into his way of thinking in order to show him the foolishness of it all, “lest he be wise in his own eyes.” And that’s an example of the kind of thing verse 5 says we should do, and there aren’t any circumstances in which this kind of thing is wrong or unwise. It’s always good and right, provided that it’s done with proper grace.

So in sum, these proverbs aren’t situational. It isn’t that some circumstances require us to heed verse 4 while other circumstances require us to shelf verse 4 and heed verse 5 instead. Rather, we should always heed both. They can both be applied simultaneously with no conflict.

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