‘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.’ Proverbs 26:4-5
(Note: Hebrew terms of “fool” and “foolish” describe a person who does not believe in God and is ignorant of wisdom based on God’s moral standard.)
Some modern critics assume the ancients were flat-out stupid. Case in point, after a brief glance at Proverbs 26:4-5 an objection may be raised along the lines of: “Look! An obvious contradiction in the very next verse! The Bible cannot be trusted…” And so a superficial argument has been framed.
But the ancients were not stupid.
The author of Proverbs actually intended to pair these seemingly contradictory verses together. And what these verses propose is not a logical contradiction, but a dilemma for the reader. It is a proposal of two choices. Proverbs 26:4-5 reveals two wise and effective ways to deal with a fool given the specific circumstance, and either way could be pertinent when the options are thoughtfully weighed.
‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him’
Some will outright reject any claim of the historical authority the Bible. Because of their contemporary secular presuppositions, some critics assume any argument with Biblical foundations must be deemed ridiculous.
When the debate format has been framed without using the Bible (evidential apologetics), the Christian has already conceded that the critic’s apologetic approach is a valid ground to start. It’s not. Secular critics may cry for objectivity and neutrality when debating; but they are neither objective nor neutral. No one is. Neither should the Christian be in an attempt to appear amicable.
Objectivity is a myth.
If a Christian takes up the approach of his critics the debate will spiral downward in to an incessant match of evidence regurgitation. After both of sides have exhausted all the contemporary arguments for and against evolution, the resurrection, and bible validity, still nothing has changed.
The critic leaves satisfied, because the Christian took the bait and accepted the game even though the deck was stacked.
In that case a fool was answered according to his folly. Or, to borrow the words of Jesus, the Christian has casted his pearls before swine (Matthew 7).
In this case, silence is preferable. A closing of the mouth may speak volumes of godly rebuke.
‘Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.’
Again, this seems to be a surface level contradiction when compared with v. 4. But remember one of the principles of the book of Proverbs is this: Wisdom only comes to those who diligently and desperately seek it (Proverbs 2:1-5). Wisdom does not come to those who would lazily cherry pick a verse as cheap ammo against bible authority.
It should be noted that there are many interpretive disciplines to employ when taking up Scripture, such as grammatical nuances, historical context, literary genre, and authorial intent. The secular critic rarely employs any of these when reading into the meaning of alleged contradictions.
Verse 4 may also be presented like this: ‘Answer not a fool according to his own presuppositions, lest you be like him’
When both sides apologetic foundations are addressed it may be time to proceed with debate. When a critic believes his arguments are above reproach then the Christian should expose his subjective presuppositions with the only unchanging foundational truth: the Bible.
For example: If the critic believes they evolved by chance (unguided natural process), then the Christian may need to point out that their processes of logic also evolved by chance. So ultimately, the critic can’t be sure they are even asking the right questions. Even more, they can’t be certain they are capable of knowing with certainty the answers. The critic has no ground to stand on but the randomly programmed chemical reactions of the 8 pounds of tissue between his ears.
How can the Christian be certain their logic has ground in historical reality? The Christian appeals to something outside of self. To the true abiding eternal word that has never changed and reveals the design and mind of God. The Christian stands on the firm foundation of God’s word. The pinnacle of the Bible is the glory of God as revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When the fool’s error is exposed using God’s living word he is forced to an impasse: submit to it or scorn it. If there is a softness of heart and open door to a clear presentation of the gospel you have been right in answering the fool according to his folly.
Without the goal of the biblical gospel, apologetics becomes nothing more than intellectual one upmanship.
Defending the faith should always be done humbly and boldly (1 Peter 3:15).
So there are times you should answer a fool and there are times you shouldn’t. It depends on the nature of the fool.
Is there evidence of grace in the fool’s words, demeanor, and person? Answer him according to his folly. Is there only an insulting scorn and hardness in the fool’s discourse? Do not answer him according to his folly.
How can you discern when and how to answer a fool? That takes Holy Spirit-born Bible-saturated wisdom. This divine wisdom must be prayerfully and intensely sought before God.
Such wisdom doesn’t come cheap or easy. But the truth is neither cheap or easy. Otherwise it would be an easy sell.
As wise Solomon once said in Ecclesiastes 3:7: There is a time to speak and a time to shut up. There is a season for everything.