Don’t answer—do answer!
Some who superficially read the Bible claim that Proverbs 26:4–5 makes contradictory1 statements: ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.’
However, there are wise principles in these verses, lessons which would help Christians to be much more effective in countering false arguments and in witnessing.
Let’s look at verse 4: ‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.’
As we have often said, one must understand that all evidence is interpreted on the basis of ‘presuppositions’. As Christians, all of our thinking—in every area—should be built upon the history revealed in God’s Word. Doing this, you have the correct ‘big picture’ way of understanding the universe so that the evidence of the present can be interpreted correctly.
Sadly, many Christians often succumb to the non-Christian’s challenge to provide evidence for the existence of God, creation and the Christian faith, etc., without using the Bible. When you agree to these terms of the debate, however, you are answering a person ‘according to [i.e. within the terms of] his folly’.
By accepting the non-Christian’s presuppositions (that thinking is not to be built on the Bible), one only has, by default, the non-Christian’s way of thinking to interpret the evidence. With no true foundation (God’s Word) on which to correctly (and differently) interpret the evidence, one cannot ‘win’ the argument. Understanding the presuppositional nature of the argument, one will not answer someone ‘according to their folly’ (i.e. based on secular presuppositions about life).
Now verse 5: ‘Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.’ As mentioned, on the surface, this seems to contradict verse 4. But when you think about it, there is infinite wisdom behind it.
As said, first you show the non-Christian that you will not argue according to someone else’s presuppositions. Rather, you use the biblical foundation of history to interpret evidence, confirming this with real science.
Then you need to proceed by applying verse 5—i.e. answering an opponent by showing the logical consequences of his ‘folly’ (non-biblical presuppositions).
For instance, if someone believes they evolved by chance, then you need to point out that their processes of logic—of thinking—also evolved by chance. So ultimately, they can’t be sure they are even asking the right questions … let alone understanding the answers!2
These verses came to mind recently when I was reading a testimony about a 14-year-old student at a church-run school. She challenged her compromising teacher, who was telling students that Christians could believe in evolution.
As reported to us, the principal called her to his office and said, ‘Well, if I believe this [evolution], why can’t you?’ The young girl simply replied, ‘If we can’t rely on the Genesis account, we can’t rely on anything in the Bible, and we can’t accept that Jesus really is our Saviour.’
This sharp young lady was answering this person according to his folly—pointing out the consequences (for a Christian) of starting with the wrong presupposition, in this case that you can accept evolution without any problems.
Praise the Lord, as a result of this girl’s argument, we read that she had ‘stirred a hornet’s nest amongst the staff … . A staff retreat had to be called to determine the truth of the matter. Never before had their theological viewpoint been so seriously shaken.’
It is vital that we don’t answer … and that we do answer. God’s Word is powerful, when we take Him at His Word.
Notes and references
- Sadly, some sceptics think that since ‘ancient people were stupid’, they didn’t realise that these ‘contradictory’ statements were next to each other. But obviously, the author intended these seemingly opposite statements to go together, and this article suggests some applications. In fact, they do not have the logical form of a contradiction, but that of a dilemma—there are problems with both ways of dealing with a fool. Also, we should add, proverbial literature is not intended to be absolute. Return to text.
- [Ed.] Similarly when asked about the problem of evil—if the questioner rejects an absolute moral Lawgiver, then they are unable to justify absolute moral concepts, so how can ‘evil’ even be a meaningful concept? Return to text.