Why not write my first major blog post on the continuing controversy surrounding Ergun Caner and Liberty University? On Friday, June 25, Liberty University released the following statement regarding the investigation into various allegations made against Dr. Caner:
After a thorough and exhaustive review of Dr. Ergun Caner’s public statements, a committee consisting of four members of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees has concluded that Dr. Caner has made factual statements that are self-contradictory. However, the committee found no evidence to suggest that Dr. Caner was not a Muslim who converted to Christianity as a teenager, but, instead, found discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence. Dr. Caner has cooperated with the board committee and has apologized for the discrepancies and misstatements that led to this review. Dr. Caner’s current contractual term as Dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary expires on June, 30, 2010. Dr. Caner will no longer serve as Dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. The university has offered, and Dr. Caner has accepted, an employment contract for the 2010-2011 academic year. Dr. Caner will remain on the faculty of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary as a professor.
Without rehashing all of the specific allegations against Dr. Caner, the central issue comes down to one of credibility. Dr. Caner has not been accused of a crime. He is not a defendant on trial. Rather, the allegations leveled against Dr. Caner, at their heart, seek to challenge his credibility. Is Dr. Caner a credible witness (both generally and in his testimony for Christ)? In other words, is he trustworthy? Can you believe what he says?
In court, whether a witness is considered credible is subjective. One juror may hear something in the testimony of a witness that leads them to believe that the witness is not to be believed. Another juror, hearing the same testimony, does not even question the credibility of that particular witness. A third juror may initially conclude that a witness has no credibility because, on cross-examination, the answers to particular questions may have revealed some issues directly affecting a witness’ credibility. However, on re-direct (by friendly counsel), the witness’ credibility is rehabilitated. Ultimately, it is up to each individual juror to make a conclusion of credibility. That conclusion will often be influenced by the juror’s background, including family history, education, experience, training, etc.
From reading various blog posts on this subject, including those from SBCToday and Grace and Truth to You, to say that there is a divergence of opinion regarding Dr. Caner’s credibility would be a vast understatement. If you look at this case in the light most favorable to Dr. Caner (which is the standard that should be used), you could come to the conclusion that Dr. Caner’s past misstatements – which he has acknowledged and apologized for (see here) – have not damaged his credibility (see here, here, and here). I do not think that you must come to that conclusion and, personally, I would not come to that conclusion. However, I think it is reasonable that others, especially those who have a personal relationship with Dr. Caner, could arrive at the conclusion that they have.
In light of the allegations made against Dr. Caner and including the LU committee’s own conclusion “that Dr. Caner has made factual statements that are self-contradictory. However, the committee found no evidence to suggest that Dr. Caner was not a Muslim who converted to Christianity as a teenager, but, instead, found discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence,”
I think that it is extremely difficult to argue that Dr. Caner’s credibility has not been damaged at all. “Factual statements that are self-contradictory” goes to the issue of Dr. Caner’s credibility. Regardless of who originally brought those statements to light, the LU committee, in its own written statement, found that Dr. Caner was the one who made the statements. No one forced him to make factual statements that were self-contradictory. Of course, everyone, including pastors, make misstatements from time to time. We get dates wrong and names wrong and places wrong. For example, if I were to preach a sermon in which I said that the D-Day invasion happened on June 6, 1943 (instead of June 6, 1944, the actual date), I would have misspoken. Likewise, when people ask me where I grew up, I usually tell them that I was born and raised in Lake Placid, FL. However, technically speaking, I was born in Avon Park, FL because the town where my parents were residing did not have a hospital. Instead of getting complicated, I usually do not state my literal place of birth when asked. Could I be more precise? Yes. Am I trying to deceive? I don’t think so. Context and intent matter. The question is not whether misstatements happen. Rather, it is the reason or intent behind the misstatements.
In the case of Dr. Caner, were the self-contradictory factual statements, misstatements and discrepancies found by the LU committee of such a nature that his credibility was damaged sufficient to warrant him not continuing as Dean? The committee’s brief statement did not elaborate, so we can only speculate whether or not this was the case. In writing the statement as they did, my opinion is that the committee and the leadership at LU believed that Dr. Caner’s “factual statements that are self-contradictory” and the “found discrepancies” were serious enough to not renew his contract as Dean (leader) of the Seminary, but not serious enough to immediately sever all ties to him. Some would have had LU sever all ties immediately. I do believe, whatever Dr. Caner’s ultimate status with LU, that Liberty did what it had to do regarding Dr. Caner’s leadership of the Seminary, but at the same time extended grace to Dr. Caner in what must be a very difficult situation. Surely that is what any of us would want if we were in a similar situation.
Based upon the conclusions set forth in the statement and the recommendations regarding Dr. Caner, I personally would not have used the word “exonerated” in relation to this set of facts as others have in recent days (see here, here, and here). Exoneration is generally used in legal settings when someone who was accused of a crime (whether or not actually found guilty in a court of law) is later found to have been innocent of the crimes alleged (i.e., DNA testing confirms that the accused could not have committed the crime and is in fact innocent). Just because someone was acquitted of a crime in a court of law does not mean that they were exonerated – it simply means that the state did not meet its burden to prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, I do not think that any reasonable person would argue that O.J. Simpson, simply because he was acquitted of murder by a jury, was in any way exonerated of the crime for which he was accused.
In Dr. Caner’s case, to be exonerated would have meant that the LU committee found no evidence that called his credibility into question. Even if one believes that the original allegations made against Dr. Caner are unfounded and that his apology for misstatements satisfied any questions you had about his credibility, the simple fact that the LU committee “found discrepancies” and “factual statements that are self-contradictory” would make it difficult to argue that Dr. Caner was exonerated in the customary and ordinary sense of the word.
I do not know any of the participants in this case, including Dr. Caner or his chief defenders or accusers. There are obviously some who have strong feelings about this issue (both for and against Dr. Caner) and have expressed them in very direct ways. I would assume that any blogger, pastor, or Christian leader would want to establish as much credibility with their audience as possible, be they writing for a blog or preaching from a pulpit. Some, in presenting arguments defending or opposing the allegations raised against Dr. Caner, have made strong and persuasive arguments. However, one of the weakest arguments from defenders of Dr. Caner deals with the idea of exoneration. One simply does not need to argue for the exoneration of Dr. Caner when that is an almost impossible case to make (regardless of whether some well-known Christian figures are trying to make that case and in light of LU’s own statement). People certainly have the right and freedom to continue to argue that Dr. Caner was exonerated by the LU committee. However, I believe that those who do so will be more credible witnesses, not only in the present case, but in future cases, if they acknowledge that arguing that Dr. Caner was exonerated, however well intended, was misplaced. After all, what we say in our writing and preaching today may well determine whether we are considered credible witnesses tomorrow.