From Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (download here), p. 18:From Background Essay on Biblical Texts (same site for download), p. 17:
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.
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: