Some Preliminary Thoughts on Ambiguity
Using ambiguity intentionally can lead individuals to analyze and reflect on their understanding of the world. This reflection may lead to a deeper knowledge or understanding of a truth or life principle, or it may lead to the realization of our ignorance and instill a new desire for knowledge. Thus, ambiguity is a tool that can be used for evil or for good. Aside from blatant ignorance, ambiguity can be used in three ways: (1) maliciously: intentional misleading or deceiving of someone, (2) teaching: invoking a sense of reflection in the listener or reader, and (3) artistically: the use of ambiguity for artistic expression.
For example, the Bible is full of ambiguity, but this is not intended for our harm, but for our good. Making someone wrestle with ambiguity before arriving at a conclusion can be used as a teaching tool. Rather than coddling students to a conclusion, ambiguity forces students to struggle to a conclusion. It is this struggle that makes the new found knowledge difficult to forget. After all, does memorizing the Book of Proverbs suddenly make someone wise? No. Thus, ambiguity is like money; it can be used for good, or it can be used for bad; it can be used to lead away from the truth, or to a deeper understanding of the truth.
For example, jokes and riddles often use ambiguity intentionally to make you laugh or to make you wrestle with important truths. Proverbs explicitly states that throughout its passages, the reader will be confronted with riddles to help them obtain understanding:
“Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Prov. 1:5-6).
Contradictions in The Book of Proverbs?
Southern Evangelical Seminary Professor Dr. Thomas Howe provides an excellent analysis of the Book of Proverbs and its challenges, as found in his course notes for Old Testament Survey, a class that will be taught this spring, Dr. Howe writes,
“One of the problems that Christians have faced in dealing with the book of Proverbs is in understanding how these bits of wisdom ought to be applied to the Christian life today. The major problem today is a tendency among Christians to make the individual proverbs absolute, universal principles of life. The fact is, proverbs are wise sayings that need to be understood in both the literary and historical context of the book of Proverbs” (Thomas Howe, Old Testament Survey 2 Class Notes, 56).
Robert Alter, in his book The Art of Biblical Poetry, described the challenges of Proverbs this way:
The transmission of wisdom depends on an adeptness at literary formulation, and the reception of wisdom—we should note, by an audience of the “wise” and the ‘discerning” —requires an answering finesse in reading the poems with discrimination. . . . The proem of the Book of Proverbs, in other words, at once puts us on guard as interpreters and suggests that if we are not good readers we will not get the point of the sayings of the wise (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 167-168).
While not always a syntactical ambiguity, from the quotes above it is clear that the ambiguity/riddiles of Proverbs is meant to be a teaching tool that gives us pause as we seek the wisdom and understanding it promises. For example, a Proverb that perplexes many students of the faith is the following:
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Prov. 26:4-5).
The Proverb’s blatant contradiction is not the result of an incompetent author, but rather an intentional use of contradictory language to get you to pause and search for the principle you are meant to learn. When we approach Proverbs like the one above, we must do so with an understanding that proverbs are not meant to be understood as “absolute, universal principles of life.” An attitude that every affirmative sentence in the Bible is meant to be applied universally is precisely what leads one to struggle with the passages above and the Book of Proverbs in general. So, what is the answer? When should you answer a fool? Dr. Howe’s conclusion is profound:
“A proverb is a general principle that provides a guideline for living. Prov. 26:4–5 present another illustration of this point. When do you answer a fool? The wise man knows when to answer and when not to answer (Howe, Old Testament Survey 2 Class Notes, 57).
Thus, the intention of ambiguity is what determines its positive or fallacious nature. Is the ambiguity meant to lead or mislead, to benefit or to harm? Thus, ambiguity can be thought of as a surgeon’s scalpel; it has the potential to do harm or to do good for the patient.By learning the different ways ambiguity can be used, Christians will become wiser and more effective in their communication, skills that are desperately needed in this digital era.
[accordion title =”References”]
*All Bible verses were from the English Standard Version (ESV).
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Poetry. New York, NY: Basic Books, INC., Publishers, 1985.
Kreeft, Peter. Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles. Edited by Trent Dougherty. 3.1 ed. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010.
Parker, Francis H., and Henry Babcock Veatch. Logic as a Human Instrument. New York: Harper, 1959.