Well, it’s been two months of nothing.
I obviously haven’t been blogging, but I also haven’t really been on any other social media at all. I literally have 15-30 minutes of time per day for all web related things, so this post has been in the work for weeks. Still, here’s some thoughts on a topic I’ve left for far too long: apologetics!
If you’ve been around Reformed theological circles for any length of time, I’m guessing you’ve come across that phrase presuppositional apologetics. In this post, it’s not my goal to unpack what presuppositional apologetics is. If you’ve never heard of presuppositional apologetics, a great place to start would be this article. That would direct you to some good print resources and the website would have some decent resources (as would this one…if you’re brave). There’s no shortage of web resources, but they’re not all of equal quality. That’s actually what brings me to this topic.
Not only are all presuppositional apologetics sources of varied quality, but all apologists are of varied skill sets. Apologists tend to gravitate towards studying philosophy or theology but precious few of them tend to study biblical exegesis (at least beyond a surface level – an example of the type of problems arising from the typical apologists’ focus away from exegesis is here). That’s not saying that apologists are biblically ignorant or grossly incompetent with the text of Scripture, but they tend to be enthusiasts rather an experts when it comes to exegesis. What’s worse is that most enthusiasts who think they’re experts fall into enthusiast-level errors; common confusions if you will.
I’d like to offer some exegetical assistance today on a specific text that is probably the most widely known “common confusion” in presuppositional apologetics: Proverbs 26:4-5.
Here are those two verses:
“(4) Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
(5) Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
Now in presuppositional apologetics circles, those two verses have been misunderstood and misapplied to the apologetic process in a specific way. Starting with the late Greg Bahnsen (a patron saint of modern presuppositionalism), those two verses have been taken to give a two-step biblical process for apologetics. Bahnsen specifically took Prov. 26:4-5 as a two-step guide to arguing with a fool (aka. unbeliever).
Here’s my attempt at summarizing Bahnsen’s misunderstanding of Prov. 26:4-5:
(4) Don’t assume a fools’ worldview (as common ground) when arguing with him.
(5) Assume his worldview when arguing with him for the sake of pointing out the internal inconsistency of his worldview.
In his book Always Ready, Bahnsen describes this two-step process when he writes:
“In the first place, the unbeliever should not be answered in terms of his own misguided presuppositions; the apologist should defend his faith by working within his own presuppositions. …But then in the second place the apologist should answer the fool according to his self-proclaimed presuppositions (i.e., according to his folly). In so doing he aims to show the unbeliever the outcome of those assumptions. Pursued to their consistent end presuppositions of unbelief render man’s reasoning vacuous and his experience unintelligible; in short, they lead to the destruction of knowledge, the dead-end of epistemological futility, to utter foolishness.” (Always Ready, 61-62)
American Vision has definitely continued on Bahnsen’s confusion on Prov. 26:4-5. They’ve got an article on their website that spends several pages explaining the two-step process laid out in Prov. 26:4-5. The article says:
“Now then, what does Solomon mean in Proverbs 26? Why does he direct us on the one hand not to “answer a fool according to his folly” (v. 4), while on the other, he urges us to “answer a fool according to his folly” (v. 5)? This seems contradictory. But it is not; and it precisely outlines the Presuppositional Apologetic’s two-step procedure: Positively, you must present the truth and, negatively, you must warn of folly. Be aware: though biblical apologetics involves these two steps, you do not have to use them in this order. The apologetic situation might require that the order be reversed. Nevertheless, both steps are necessary, even if not in any particular order.” (7)
Answers in Genesis also tows the Bahnsen line on Prov. 26:4-5. They have an article here which says:
“When we are engaging skeptics with the truth of God’s Word, we can apply the ‘don’t answer/answer’ strategy found in Proverbs 26:4–5. We don’t accept the skeptic’s ‘folly,’ his terms for the debate. We stand firmly on our presuppositions. Instead, we show the skeptic the logical consequences of his foolish presuppositions and point him to the truth of the Christian worldview.”
Proverbs 26:1-12 contains a cluster of proverbs related to fools. The passage starts off warning that honor is unbecoming a fool (26:1) and then warns the reader against careless cursing (26:2). I’d take a guess and suggest that 26:2, being the only proverb where the word “fool” doesn’t appear, is included as a cautionary warning against being quick to label someone a “fool.” That’s not a hill I’d die on, but only an educated guess.
The passage continues on warning that the way to get through to a fool is with a beating (26:3). Then comes 26:4-5, where we have two proverbs that appear to contradict one another rather blatantly. That apparent contradiction has caused consternation to many people, but I’d suggest that 26:4-5 uses identical vocabulary for the purpose of juxtaposition (contrasting two ideas for the purpose of illustrating a point). The idea here is that one can do the same thing to two different fools and have two different results (v.4 vs. v.5) because they’re fools; they don’t act rationally and don’t respond predictably to things.
In other words, if you deal with a fool in accord with his foolishness, he’ll think you’re a fool (v. 4), but if you don’t deal with a fool in accord with his foolishness, he may think he is wise (v. 5). Both are sadly true of fools.
For “exhibit A”, I subject the entire website of Facebook.
For “exhibit B,” I submit the following illustration that appears bi-monthly somewhere on Facebook:
If you respond to someone saying something utterly foolish (i.e. “Did you know that John MacArthur said that Christians can take the mark of the Beast in the tribulation and still be saved?), they’ll think you’re a fool (“here’s the clip moron! How do you explain that away?”).
If you don’t respond, they’ll think they’re right (“I sent the clip to Phil Johnson and he was too scared to answer! He knows that John MacArthur is a heretic but won’t say anything because John is his boss!”).
I used to get a dime every time I heard that example, but I cashed them all in when I had enough to buy me an old jalopy.
Getting back to Proverbs, fools don’t act rationally or reasonably. That’s why they’re unbecoming of honor (v.1). That’s why they need a rebuke with percussion (v.3) instead of melody (v.4-5). That’s why you don’t rely on them for relaying messages (v.6) and that’s why they don’t respond to wisdom (v.7). That’s why you never honor them (v.8), listen to them (v.9), or hire them (v.10). They don’t learn from their errors (v.11)
Then the passage takes a shocking turn, building on all that has been said before: a fool has more hope than a proud man who thinks highly of himself (26:12).
Vs. 12 is kind of the capstone of the preceding 11 verses, and is a blistering admonition against being prideful.
But 26:4-5 is not a two-step formula for defending the Christian faith against unbelievers. Rather, it’s a warning that any sort of arguing with a fool may be unproductive, regardless of the tactic a person takes. With fools, you never can be sure.
I don’t bring this up because I want to score points showing that some miniscule exegetical point of Bahnsen (and a whole lot of other folks) is incorrect. They’re all far more significant folks than me and I have no interest at all in being more famous than I already am…especially in Christian circles. “Christian fame” is the absolute worst kind of fame.
The reason I point out the popular misunderstanding of Prov. 26:4-5 is because some presuppositional apologists make Bahnsen’s two-step process out to be the main course of their apologetic practice. They make presuppositional apologetics appear to be, at least on the street, mostly arguing about the laws of logic with fools (who often are so caught off guard with the nature of the argument that they’re floundering to participate in the argument in the first place).
Prov. 26:4-5 offers a warning against that sort of thing instead of commanding it.
A fool that is shown the error of his ways often will become a confused fool who will likely respond with anger, not thanksgiving. Showing internal inconsistencies in the worldview of a fool will, more often than not, be an ultimately fruitless endeavor since they’re unpredictable and irrational in the first place.
Unbelieving skeptics need the gospel. They don’t need to be forced into a corner and have their faces rubbed in the fact that their worldview is incoherent.
Sadly, I swallowed the Prov. 26:4-5 confusion for several years and got really good at showing unbelievers that their worldview couldn’t hold water. I once even argued a proud and educated fellow into a corner to the point that he surrendered the argument and admitted defeat…and promptly became a Hindu.
You can even still do things like applying an internal critique to a worldview (I’m not against that either), but I’d suggest that if you’re taking Proverbs 26:4-5 as some sort of divine formula for the apologetic encounter, you’re trusting God to bless a process he never gave you. I would recommend not focusing on arguing logic or worldview as the main course of your interaction with foolish objectors to Christianity. In fact, you may find yourself trying to circumvent those discussions (like I try to do with the list technique that I use), at least initially.
Also, take this clarification and build on it. Presuppositionalists need some better “on the street” tactics than we’ve currently got. I’d encourage readers to come up with some fantastic new approaches to practical dialogue, informed by responsible and accurate exegesis, and offer some great and much-needed positive rhetorical strategies to presuppositional circles.
After all, in this coming era Christians will need increasingly persuasive rhetorical packaging, right?
Let’s get on that now.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “I’m not saying I’m smarter than (insert apologist/ministry)” Unger