A Contradiction in Scripture?

I was just asked a great question. I love to get questions of biblical interpretation from one of God’s people who are thoughtfully wrestling with the Word of God. This one raises an interesting problem for us as evangelical Christians. The text is Proverbs 26:4-5. I’ve included the text in two translations – first the NIV since this is the translation most of us use primarily, second the NLT (New Living Translation) since the questioner was using this particular translation:

Proverbs 26:4-5 NIV  4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. 5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5 NLT  4 When arguing with fools, don’t answer their foolish arguments, or you will become as foolish as they are. 5 When arguing with fools, be sure to answer their foolish arguments, or they will become wise in their own estimation.

If you are a critic of the evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture, this would be a great proof text. In fact, I have seen this text used as a club intended to bludgeon those of us who do take scripture to be the very Word of God written, fully inspired, authoritative, and free of contradiction or error.

On the surface this is a rank contradiction! Proverbs 26:4 gives an admonition, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly.” Proverbs 26:5 (the very next verse) gives exactly the opposite admonition, “Answer a fool according to his folly.” Should I answer a fool according to his folly, or should I not answer a fool according to his folly? The bible tells me to do and to not do (and this in consecutive verses!) and I am left to puzzle.

Well, before you despair, throw away your bible, and abandon the faith…consider for a minute. Is this really a contradiction? Does the author of Proverbs (Solomon for this portion of Proverbs) simply not recognize the basic rules of logic? Is it likely that Solomon is an irrationalist? Or that he is oblivious to what he has just stated? We would have to discredit all the clear thinking we have seen on display throughout the rest of this remarkable book. The contradiction is only apparent.

There is no contradiction. The key to the whole thing is to look at the entirety of both verses and to contrast them. The two verses are meant to highlight two different senses of “answering a fool according to his folly” and focus upon two entirely different applications.

Let’s consider Proverbs 26:4, “4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” The second half of the verse gives us some idea of what is warned against in the first half of the verse. “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly” or “you will be like him yourself.” The warning here regards a spiritual danger for a wise man who finds himself in the midst of a debate with a foolish man. If he is not careful he can find himself being drug into much nonsense himself (“according to his folly” here meaning in keeping with his confused perspective). He needs to be conscious of the path of wisdom, of the very different worldview of the foolish man, of the likelihood that the fool will do greater harm to him than he is likely to do good for the fool. For this reason care must be taken when engaging a foolish man – think twice, check your own heart and mind, make sure that you are not led astray by the folly of your dialogue partner. Exercise spiritual discernment as regards yourself!

Now let’s consider Proverbs 26:5, “5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Here we are admonished that we should, in fact, answer said fool. But as in the last verse, the second half of the verse offers us much insight, “or he will be wise in his own eyes.” In other words we should look carefully at the person with whom we are dealing, and we should exercise spiritual discernment. This fellow is trapped in a flawed worldview; he’s confused, mixed up. If I don’t answer him “according to his folly” (here meaning faulting his wrongheadedness) he will think himself wise (though a fool!) and much harm will ensue. I must exercise spiritual discernment as regards my neighbor! I must answer him wisely for his sake.

Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5, then, are not contradictory, but rather complementary. The first verse calls for the exercise of self-awareness when engaging with one trapped in folly, lest we fall ourselves from the path of wisdom. The second verse calls for spiritual discernment of our neighbor’s need and the desire to do him good through a word of admonition, lest he persist in the deluded view of his own wisdom.

Should I answer or not answer? Look hard at yourself first, then look hard at your neighbor. Discern your spiritual condition, then discern the spiritual condition of your neighbor. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom that you might both not cause great damage to yourself, nor allow one that you love to continue to walk a path that leads to his own harm.