Published on February 8th, 2011 | by Stephanie S. Smith
When Scripture “Contradicts” Itself
This past week I was talking to a former professor who told me an experience with two contentious students of his ruined his joy in teaching. He taught at a Bible college, and these two students, instead of being interested in learning, were only interested in splitting theological hairs. As a result of their constant criticizing, their professor was unable to keep on topic for the course, and the class had to sit through back and forth debates every day instead of learning the course material.
This is what happens when we “answer fools,” as Proverbs 26:4 warns, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” I love this verse for its practical wisdom, perhaps because I see so many examples of it in life today. When Christians respond in outrage to some cultural development, political issue, or media image that offends them, I think sometimes we look as ridiculous as the very people we are trying to disprove.
But I was surprised to read the next verse, which I discovered is one of the often-quoted contradictions within the Bible. Proverbs 26:5 reads, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” These two verses are back to back, and in plain and simple language, the messages appear as opposites. How am I supposed to interpret that?
Scriptural Contradiction by Solomon?
Considering that Proverbs is written by Solomon, the wisest man in the history of the world (1 Kings 3:12), I doubt that this strange couple of proverbs are some kind of glitch or typo on his part. In fact, Proverbs is distinctive in its clever use of language, so I would assume that this back to back “contradiction” is somehow strategic, serving to prove a point.
I find my study note from Charles Ryrie to be clarifying, “These verses are complementary rather than contradictory. Although it is unwise to argue with a fool at his level and to recognize his foolish suppositions, there are occasions when it is best to refute him soundly, lest his foolish opinions seem to be confirmed.” This sounds like wise application to me, but I want to dig a little deeper to confirm this interpretation.
Because these verses share many words and phrases, I looked up a few of them in the original Hebrew using Strong’s concordance. The word “folly” used in both verses has the obvious meaning of foolishness, but Strong’s records another translation, that this word means power, from the root. Giving the example of Proverbs 14:24, Strong’s says, “The writer appears to have played on the double significance of the word.”
I don’t know if there is a similar wordplay happening in Prov. 26:4-5, but I think it is a possibility considering the literary genius displayed in this book. Perhaps there is a double meaning of the word “folly” at work here. But I do know that Jesus often dealt with fools in His earthly ministry, and His response seems to be in line with Ryrie’s interpretation. Jesus often answered the questions of His opponents with another question (Mt. 21:25, Mark 3:4, Luke 20:23, 44), and in these situations His dissenters were rendered speechless in their confusion. Answering a fool’s question with a wise question allows the wise man to preserve his wisdom without stooping to the fool’s level, and it also serves to expose the folly of the fool’s question.
Other Contradictions in the Bible
What other Contradictions in the Bible do you find, and how do you approach these apparent Contradictions?