Credible Witnesses

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.

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About Howell Scott

I have been a Southern Baptist pastor for the last fourteen years. Before entering the ministry, I was a practicing attorney in my homestate of Florida. I have been married to my wife, Brenda, for 18 years and we have three sons, Stephen, Jacob, and Andrew.
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6 Responses to Credible Witnesses

  1. Bennett Willis says:

    At the start of this discussion, I think that few of EC’s “accusers” had any personal feelings about him. I know that I did not. He was simply a fellow (in a position of high status and trust) who had obviously distorted his life history. I regarded this situation as inappropriate and occasionally pointed out some issue or other. As time has passed and the extent of the distortion has become more apparent, my feelings toward EC have become better defined–and much more negative.

    His “defenders” are significantly responsible for this. EC’s “defenders” (almost) uniformly have attacked the messenger. They have done this with some of the most vicious words I have seen used on the Internet. I cannot recall anyone who defended EC doing so based on the information that is available. Some have pleaded for “innocent until proven guilty—and then disappeared now that the guilty verdict has come back. Some have said that we should wait for the LU report—and claimed that it “exonerated” EC. Some have “hypothesized” excuses for some of the statements—and have failed to produce documentation for their hypotheses. But the largest group by far has simply attacked the people who feel that EC needs to do something because much of his telling of his life story appears to be a fable.

    The obvious conclusion is that EC made up things that improved his street credibility regarding Islam–this is his “Baptist street” credibility. LU decided that these lies mattered–but not so much. Norman Geisler decided that it did not matter at all–and had not even occurred. John Ankerberg saw and heard no evil—in fact he saw and heard nothing on this subject. We now have “too much information” about all of these.

    The only thing that I personally have gained from all this is a lot of knowledge about both people in general and also about specific individuals. I’m ready to move on—and will do so as soon as the “defenders” stop trying to defend the indefensible. It may be a while.

    This comment has been left on several threads.

    • Howell Scott says:

      Bennett,

      Thanks for stopping by to comment. This whole issue exposes the soft underbelly that is becoming the SBC (at least at the “highest” levels). When I practiced law, I was held to high ethical standards, two of which were to avoid even the appearance of impropriety (much less impropriety in fact) and to avoid any conflicts of interest. I thought that pastors, preachers, and those called by God to be spiritual leaders were to be above reproach, which is the highest standard that anyone is called to live by. It seems in this case that the standard was downgraded to “innocent until proven guilty” as you pointed out. Since when is this the proper standard for pastors and other spiritual leaders like Dr. Caner? If Dr. Caner (or other spiritual leaders) would have “sinned” by getting divorced or drinking alcohol, I don’t think that there is any question about how some of his current defenders would react. I think that everyone should react with grace and love toward those who fall, but that does not mean that we excuse or minimize what has taken place.

      To argue for exoneration, for example, not only does a disservice to Dr. Caner, but it negatively impacts the credibility of those trying to make that argument. I may not completely disbelieve a witness who makes unsupportable and unreasonable arguments, but it certainly gives me pause in the future to question what they say and why they say it. Whether they realize it or not (or even care), the credibility of many high-up “leaders” within Baptist life and the broader evangelical world has been damaged by how they have handled this situation and others where their authority has been challenged by grass-roots Christians. Credibility can be rehabilitated — for Dr. Caner and for anyone whose credibility has been damaged — but it is often times a long, slow process. How some of Dr. Caner’s defenders have gone about this process is not helpful to him or to them, in my opinion. Thanks again for dialoguing. God bless,

      Howell

  2. Bennett Willis says:

    Hello Howell,
    Apparently you are in Florida. If so, you appreciate the “simple joys” of living this far south. I’m on the Gulf Coast about 50 miles due south of Houston. I love winter (most of the time–though last winter froze back the hibiscus) but summer can be difficult. My daughter and her family were in Orlando for a year (with Campus Crusade for Christ) and I have a cousin in that area.

    The EC discussion lives on through the efforts of his defenders. If they would just let it alone, we could all move on to something like the BP oil issue or Al Gore. I’m not sure what they are trying to prove at this point, but they are sure not doing EC any favors. None of the “attackers” are willing to “leave the field” while the “defenders” are still saying, “but he might have visited Turkey with his father when he was 2 and this would justify EC’s saying that he grew up in Turkey.” Norman Geisler made a bad decision to publish what he did. TF is trying to be polite (and it shows) in his rebuttal. But just as really bad questions are hard to answer, really bad points are sometimes awkward to rebut.

    Your law training showed in the posting. 🙂 I have got to get to school. Have a nice day.

    • Howell Scott says:

      Bennett,
      I was born and raised in central Florida, about 2 hours south of Orlando. I’ve been in southern New Mexico serving a Southern Baptist church for the last three years. We love it out here. Still have family in Florida and visited when I was at the convention last month, but I do not miss the humidity at all!

      An old saying that I learned in law school was to the effect, “When you have the law on your side, argue the law; when you have the facts on your side, argue the facts; when you have neither, pound your fist on the desk.” Seems like there has been a lot of pounding on the desks with the EC issue and others. None of us are immune from sometimes trying our best to defend that which is clearly indefensible. However, when we realize that we are mistaken in our handling of a situation, hopefully we will do the right thing and confess that we were wrong, ask for forgiveness, and move forward. Unitl that truly happens in this case or in any other case, it is hard to act as if everything is okay.

      Bennett, thanks again for stopping by to dialogue. Hope you had a wonderful 4th of July and that you have a great week in the Lord. God bless,

      Howell

  3. Pingback: Ergun Caner Supporters Need To Stop Digging | From Law to Grace

  4. Pingback: Ergun Caner Defenders: Failure to Communicate | From Law to Grace

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