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Proverbs 26:4-5 (NLT)

4 Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools,
      or you will become as foolish as they are.

5 Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools,
      or they will become wise in their own estimation.

At first read, these seem to be contradicting one another. Verse 4 tells us not to answer fools' arguments and verse 5 tells us do answer fools' arguments. With such a seeming contradiction, there is certainly some sort of official material out there that resolves this issue. According to the Wesleyan denomination (or as close as possible), how is this apparent contradiction resolved?

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How about "You can't win with a fool"? :-) (Proverbs are generalized advice. The verses seem to be pointing to two dangers. It might not be any more contradictory than something like "Eat dessert with thanksgiving because it is a gift of God. Those who eat desserts become unhealthily fat." Part of wisdom is discerning the season in which an activity is appropriate.) (This statement is not good enough for an answer, but I hope it is not entirely useless.) –  Paul A. Clayton Mar 12 '13 at 12:35
    
I don't know much for official Wesleyan tradition and doctrine but I think @paulA got really close. I would say that the proverbs, being wisdom for life, mean to show you that you cannot win with a fool, therefore, don't even listen to his argument at all. Just let him know that it was dumb in the first place. Mike's answer says just about that. –  fredsbend Mar 13 '13 at 8:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The common understanding of this apparent conflict is that the two verses describe two situations.

  • One involves answering foolish questions... The ones that are so foolish they don't deserve an answer. The ones that people ask to get a rise out of you, or make a point, when there's no real possibility of an intelligent conversation. The kind we quickly vote to close, downvote, and delete. Don't waste your time on them.

  • The other addresses rebuking foolishness where necessary. When someone is honestly confused, or their foolishness is causing another to stumble or fall into error.

There's a relevant article on it at Ask the Pastors that spells this out better than I, with the following points.

  1. Wisdom is only acquired by those who want it bad enough to work for it
  2. Every issue has many sides to it
  3. There are exceptions to some rules

and the conclusion of that article:

In the proverb you cite, there is a time to answer a fool according to his folly and a time not to. Jesus talked about not casting our pearls before swine (Matthew 7). This describes a situation where the receiver of truth despises truth and it is not worth telling it to him and may even be dangerous to. Paul is an example, however, of answering a fool according to his folly when in 2 Corinthians he brags and boasts of his “accomplishments” to the Corinthians because it was the only way they could receive him (11:16; 12:11). The wise person will learn when and how to respond to the fool in the best way possible, though even then he or she may not know which way was best until he or she got into it.

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Let's raise the stakes or confusion: Mathew 5:22 "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire." And not to mention Paul referring to God's plan as Foolish: biblegateway.com/passage/… –  user1361315 Mar 13 at 19:33

I think Keil's, Commentary on the Old Testament has it right. I summarize them as this: You should NOT recognize the foolish assumptions of a fool. You should NOT answer as though his questions or statements were reasonable, that would be debasing your own self and your own mind. Rather you SHOULD answer a fool as is due to according to his folly. You should answer a fool with a full rejection of his foolish assumptions and assertions. If you do not rebuke him in this way he may think his foolish ideas are wise.

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I don't know Hebrew, so I can't offer a whole lot of guidance here, but it seems the apparent contradiction could be a result of different language paradigms.

It is interesting that the Hebrew texts for the verses seem to use the same word for "fool" and "not a fool".

The grammatical structure and conjugation is baffling to me, but according to the Blue Letter Bible:

Proverbs 26:4 reads as follows: אַל־תַּעַן כְּסִיל כְּאִוַּלְתֹּו פֶּֽן־תִּשְׁוֶה־לֹּו גַם־אָֽתָּה׃

where:

  • ענה - Answer
  • כסיל - not a fool
  • אולת - according to his folly
  • שוה - lest thou also be like unto him

Proverbs 26:5 reads as follows: עֲנֵה כְסִיל כְּאִוַּלְתֹּו פֶּן־יִהְיֶה חָכָם בְּעֵינָֽיו׃

where

  • ענה - Answer
  • כסיל - a fool
  • אולת - according to his folly
  • חכם - lest he be wise
  • עין - to his own conceit

I think Mike's answer is a good one. The Proverbs provide wise topical advice using a pithy and often symmetrical or somewhat poetic format. The two verses together seem to be warning that it's not wise to stoop to a fool's level while answering his folly, but that it's also not wise to let a fool's folly go totally unchecked. It seems to utilize a bit of equivocation in what it means to answer him "according to his folly" (i.e. identify his bad assumptions or conclusions and try to correct them, but don't be baited into arguing foolishly yourself)

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