Sunday, August 23, 2009

Does the Truth Change with Time?

During the debate over sexuality at the Lutheran convention last week, all of the postmodern arguments about the relativity of Biblical truth were on view. Here are just two samples out of many that could be gathered:

From Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (download here), p. 18:
On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that the scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today.
From Background Essay on Biblical Texts (same site for download), p. 17:
As far as we can tell, the biblical writers knew nothing about “homosexuality” as a sexual orientation.The concepts of “homosexuality,” “homosexual,” “heterosexuality,” and “heterosexual” are modern, first articulated in the latter part of the nineteenth century. As strange as it may sound, it can be said that the Bible teaches nothing concerning homosexuality.
There is an unspoken assumption in these opinions. It is that humans are on a continuous line of "progress" in scientific knowledge and understanding -- not only of themselves, but of the world around them. By assumption, therefore, we of the twenty-first century do not have to listen to writers of the first century and earlier, who could not have had the same grasp of human nature that we do.

But this begs the very question at issue here: does truth change over time? Can something have been true for the first century which is no longer true for ours?

Not in the sense that 1 + 1 = 2, of course. That was as true in A.D. 50 as it is now.

Well, what about human institutions -- such as slavery? Slavery was a fact of life in the first century A.D. Does that mean it was in some sense "true" or "right" back then?

Not according to the Old or New Testament. In Exodus (6:6), God heralds his unique covenant with the people of Israel by proclaiming his feat in delivering them out of slavery in Egypt. St. Paul reinforces the accomplishment in Galatians 5:1, when he writes: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."

The fact that the Bible in certain passages acknowledges that slavery exists, therefore, cannot be taken as an endorsement of the institution as moral. Jesus was explicit that slavery was not a moral good: "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin." (John 8:34; and see also 8:35: "The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever." The abiding relationship -- the one that determines proper behavior -- is between father and son, or parent and child, not master and slave.)

Well, what of other moral precepts? Are the Ten Commandments less valid today than they were when Moses brought them down from Mt. Sinai? Do they, like parts of the Purity Code, apply today only to orthodox Jews, and not to the rest of us? But if so, why have they been singled out over the centuries? Does "honor thy father and thy mother" mean something different today than it did in 1100 B.C.? Does "adultery"?

And then there is divorce -- but again, most people who bring it up as an example of how the Church has changed its attitudes over time care little for the bigger picture. Jesus acknowledged that divorce had been permitted under Moses (Mt 19:8), so what has changed over time about divorce? Only the justifications for it have changed: we have gone from "hardness of heart" (i.e., unwillingness to conform to God's plan) in Moses' day, to "sexual immorality" in Jesus' day (Mt 19:9), to "no fault" today. Even that is not much of a change from Jesus' time; according to the Mishnah, some rabbis allowed a man to divorce his wife "if she spoiled a dish for him", or "even if he found another fairer than she." (Gittin 9:10.)

In other words, grounds for divorce used to be accepted as necessary, even though that did not allow the divorcees to consider themselves as free to marry someone else without committing adultery (Mt 5:32, Lk 16:18). Now we have removed the need to cite grounds -- but that does not elevate divorce into a moral act. On the contrary: divorce remains a tragedy that is grounded in moral failing. The stigma of adultery for a remarriage after divorce is not lifted; proper pastoral practice, however, calls for thorough counseling before entering on a second marriage. Even Jesus' hard saying cannot be understood to mean that a second marriage is an ongoing adulterous relationship. (He does not say "he who lives in a relationship with a divorced woman commits adultery . . .", but "he who marries a divorced woman . . ." [Mt 5:32, Lk 16:18]. Thus it may begin in the sin of adultery, but the partners may repent and commit themselves to a new and permanent marriage in accordance with God's plan.)

Thus, the Church's teaching about divorce and remarriage has not changed. Its pre-nuptial counseling may not be what it once was, and it may be marrying many people who are not taking the commitment seriously enough, but no responsible scholar argues that "Jesus understood 'marriage' to mean something different from what it means today." Similarly, those who contend that "the Church should get out of the marriage business altogether" fail to acknowledge the centrality of Christian marriage to Christian life.

People who argue that there is no such thing as absolute and unchanging truth contradict themselves, of course. To say there is no absolute truth is to deny its existence by asserting an absolute truth. Moreover, theologians understand God Himself as absolute truth -- immutable, indivisible and eternally the same. As such, God is incapable of speaking an untruth. Thus to assert the relativity of all truth is not only to contradict oneself, but it also is an indirect way of denying that God is, in contradiction of what He tells us (Ex. 3:14).

Thus the answer to my title's question is: "No, truth by definition is absolute and unchanging. It cannot be otherwise and still be called truth."

And where does that leave us with the debate over whether the Bible forbids same-sex marriage, and homosexually-partnered clergy? Again, no one can logically say that the truth of the Bible has changed in any respect. What changes is not its truth, but man's interpretation of that truth. And not the interpretation of mankind in general, but only that of a relatively small segment of postmodern thinkers. If we were to eliminate at the outset any argument for same-sex marriage made by someone who cannot admit the existence of absolute and unchanging truth, I think the number of legitimate defenders of the concept would shrink dramatically.

Thus the entire argument comes down to scholars who say: "Your interpretation of the passages in the Bible that touch upon same-sex relations -- and the reading of those passages given by Christians since the time of St. Paul -- is simply wrong. Understood properly, there is no such 'truth' expressed in them." To which I respond: "Given the nature of tradition and reason, you have to admit you are in the minority on this issue. So what makes you so certain that the truth as revealed to us by God actually validates same-sex marriage?"

I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer to that question. While I can cite Scripture and tradition in support of my position, the argument on the other side comes down to generalizations drawn from commandments such as "Love your neighbor as yourself", or inferences drawn from Biblical passages such as those about David's love for Jonathan (and Saul). There are, to be blunt, no passages in the Bible which directly support same-sex love. The ones that do refer to same-sex relationships are either construed as condemning it, or (in the eyes of postmodern Biblical scholars) as not addressing it in particular, at least in the sense we understand such relationships today.

Even more free from any scriptural foundation are the arguments based on the claimed identity of sentiments: that same-sex monogamous partners share the same feelings of love, fidelity and respect as do a man married to a woman. Such an argument goes way too far, because it would justify equally well polyamory, or marrying one's dog or cat.

Let there be no misunderstanding: I am in no position to say that my interpretation of Scripture is right. I think that it was wise of the authors of the Background Essay on Biblical Texts (cited above) to conclude as follows:
The Bible is the primary place to which Christians turn to discern God’s will, but on the basis of the foregoing paragraph, it should be clear that decisions within and for the church concerning “homosexuality” and its attendant issues cannot be arbitrated by biblical scholars alone. Their role must remain modest. They are able to help clarify issues by bringing evidence, arguments, and proposals to the table. But finally their contributions are only one part of a larger discussion among those who seek the mind of Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
This passage properly acknowledges the existence of an eternal truth which God reveals to us, and man's own fallibility in discerning that truth as well. Nevertheless, in the present debate, both tradition and the Church fathers, as well as much contemporary scholarship (from Richard B. Hays to Robert Gagnon), seem to me to hold the upper hand. And if that is the case, I would be very chary of taking the Church to shipwreck on the possibility that all of those people might have gotten it wrong.

Postscript: here is a short video that effectively makes my point in reverse -- by showing how those in the "majority" can be quite wrong:


  1. I do not often comment here, but I think there is a difference between listening to the thinkers of past generations for the wisdom that can be found in their words and accepting everything they have written as if it were a perfect expression of the truth. While the idea that we understand everything much better than St. Paul is absurd, there are matters about which he had no knowledge and it may well be true that his knowledge of human sexuality was both limited and culture-bound. That is a poimt for discussion and not, as some might argue, a question to be swept aside.

  2. No one is saying that our present understanding of human sexuality cannot be a point for discussion, Father Weir. In fact, I see no lack of discussions on the topic.

    My question is rather: how does the current rationale for same-sex relations become the basis for driving out those who happen to think it is not in accord with two thousand years of interpretation and tradition? If the only candidates that ECUSA will allow to become its future bishops are either those who (a) are already in same-sex relationships, or (b) do not think anything is wrong with such relationships, where is the room left for tradition? The ones upholding the latter are simply termed "cretins" (witness the Rev. Susan Russell here) or "homophobes", and are pronounced too bigoted to be allowed to play a role in the Church.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the Anglican Communion is told: "Like it or not -- we are not going to stop doing it." So to proceed is not to have a "discussion", but a stampede.

  3. Jesus did not declare second marriages to be sin. if fact he stated that if the unbeliever departs(due to their adultery)then the believer is no longer bound but is set free. such is my story contained within the pages of the first of three true novels by Eloquent Books entitled Euclid Avenue. the press release can be seen at available at barnes & noble and

  4. r.k., you have set up a straw man to knock down. In the first place, it was not Jesus, but Paul, who declared the exception to which you refer -- for a Christian married to an unbeliever, when the unbeliever leaves the marriage. See 1 Cor. 7:12-15. And the question raised by Paul's discussion of the situation is whether there was any Christian marriage to begin with.

    Jesus did not say the second marriage itself was sin, he expressly referred to a second Christian marriage, as I pointed out. All He said was that in the act of marrying for the second time, there was necessarily an act of adultery (unless the first marriage had been dissolved by the other's act of adultery), until the partners could repent and fulfill their vows to make the second marriage a lasting Christian one.

  5. as the ex in the marriage was unfaithful to an incredible degree(8 proven individuals of a number that could reach 20), i stand by my statement. apologies for the blending of the words of our savior with those of the apostle paul. however, i know that the path laid before me was that of the lord.

  6. Reappraisers make two a priori assumptions regarding this that need to be challenged.

    The first is that relationships are sanctified by being committed. But that's not the case.

    It's worthy of note that the ancient world certainly had committed same-sex relationships, as any reader of Plutarch knows. Same sex relationships were certainly prominent in Hellenic and Hellenistic culture (if not completely accepted,) something the Jews found distasteful. (That distaste, IMHO, helped to fuel the Maccabean revolt, but that's another issue.) So this conflict has been going on for a long time

    The second is that it's true that the ancient world didn't have the "identity" politics and group concepts we have now. But then again it didn't have the race-based slavery that has caused so much heartache in the Americas, and it didn't have the "master race" concept that fuelled the Nazis.

    The thing that reappraisers in TEC are trying to get around is that the acceptance of same sex relationships is a rejection of Christianity and a reversion to paganism. One reason why TEC struggles to add members is that pagans and secularists understand that fact and TEC reappraisers don't.

  7. Well done.

    You wrote:

    "If we were to eliminate at the outset any argument for same-sex marriage made by someone who cannot admit the existence of absolute and unchanging truth, I think the number of legitimate defenders of the concept would shrink dramatically."

    Indeed, it is impossible to argue the point with those who cannot admit such an existence. I wonder how "process theology" would deal with the question of truth.

    Could it be that pewsitters are not being taught the concept of absolute and unchanging truth, and are thus all the more subject to the shifting winds of change?

  8. r.k., I did not mean in the least to slight the truth of your own experience. It sounds indeed as though it fell well within the boundaries outlined by St. Paul. Grace and peace to you.

    Don, thank you for those points. They are true, and well said. "One reason why TEC struggles to add members is that pagans and secularists understand that fact and TEC reappraisers don't." Or as J. Gresham Machen put it, the Church is engaged in the "absolutely impossible task . . . of calling the [self-defined] righteous to repentance".

    UP, the relativity of Biblical truth is an essential part of a lot of sermons these days -- it's a way of reading the Bible to suit current fashions, in order to avoid making people uncomfortable. (From your own posts, I gather you might have encountered it on some Sundays yourself.) If priests would just be honest and admit that it is their interpretation which is changing, while the Bible's truth remains the same, I think their congregation could live with that. But then, I guess, after a while they might start asking themselves: "We can get changing interpretations from anyone -- at home, in the office, or on the street. Why do we need to come to Church for yet one more variation? Isn't the Church supposed to stand for something?" When they start realizing that, they stop coming -- it's the same process that Don and J. Gresham Machen were talking about.

  9. During my lunch break, I chanced upon this collect in the 1928 BCP. I think it ties in with the subject of your post.

    Offices of Instruction

    O ALMIGHTY God, Who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, That they may love the thing which thou commandest, And desire that which thou dost promise; That so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, Our hearts may surely there be fixed, Where true joys are to be found; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    Does anyone know if this is to be found in the 1979 BCP?

  10. Good catch, Pewster - very appropriate. In the 1979 BCP, it is the traditional collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, p. 167.