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Ergun Caner Out as Seminary Dean

Geisler, Ankerberg defend former Muslim despite non-renewal of contract.

Wednesday was Ergun Caner's final day as president and dean of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, but Liberty University officials are mum on the leadership future of the Lynchburg, Virginia, school.

In a seven-sentence statement to Christianity Today on Friday, Liberty University announced that Caner would no longer serve as head of the seminary, which had tripled in enrollment since he arrived five years ago. But Caner will remain on the faculty for the 2010-11 school year.

The unrevealing statement announced that a four-member committee of Liberty Board of Trustee members headed by Vice Chancellor Ronald Godwin had conducted a "thorough and exhaustive review" of Caner's public statements and concluded that he had made "factual statements that are self-contradictory." The school cited "discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence," but offered no specifics. The university said Caner had "apologized for the discrepancies and misstatements that led to this review."

Tuesday, university spokesman Johnnie Moore told CT, "Liberty is not making any additional comment or granting any interviews at this time."

The torrent of comments on related blogs suggests a mixed response within the Liberty community. The Washington Post quoted a student transferring to another seminary in the wake of the decision, yet approving of Liberty extending grace to Caner instead of firing him outright.

SBC Today said the announcement "exonerated" Caner, while the independent Liberty Students News labeled it a "guilty" verdict.

Many observers were left unsatisfied. Justin Taylor of Between Two Worlds insisted that one question still remains unresolved: "Was Dr. Caner raised in Turkey as a Muslim terrorist trained in jihad?" Taylor wrote, "Though it pains me to say it, the facts seem to suggest that the trustees at Liberty have retained a theology professor who was a fabulist."

Caner rose to prominence in evangelical circles after he wrote Unveiling Islam: An Insider's Look at Muslim Life and Beliefs (Kregel) with his brother, Emir, in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. He became the first former Muslim to head an evangelical seminary in 2005. But by early this year, both Muslim and Christian apologists and bloggers questioned the veracity of various biographical claims Caner had made about his faith background in sermons and speeches.

The university launched an investigation of the claims after CT published a report on May 3.

Few of Caner's supporters spoke in defense of Caner during the investigation, but some now are vouching for him.

John F. Ankerberg, who interviewed Caner for more than a dozen television programs, has posted on his website that he is disheartened by the attacks upon his friend's integrity and character. Ankerberg said he believes Caner's testimony is "completely true." During the Liberty investigation, Ankerberg, citing copyright infringement, had several videos posted by critics pulled from YouTube.

"Ergun and his brother, Emir, are men of God who have taken a valiant stand for the Lord, even costing them and their families their safety," Ankerberg said. "For someone to attack Ergun's selfless sacrifice, especially since they malign his character without any substantiation, is both unchristian and unbiblical."

Norman L. Geisler, distinguished professor of apologetics at Veritas Evangelical Seminary in Murrieta, California, says the investigation's outcome vindicates Caner.

"They exonerated him on everything except some misstatements on nothing that was crucial," Geisler told CT on Wednesday. "No moral or doctrinal charges were established; no culpability was proven."

Geisler blames Muslims for inspiring the probe and "extreme Calvinists" for "shoving him under the bus." Geisler believes Liberty made a mistake in letting Caner go as president because it implies guilt.

"People who know Ergun know he is a man of honesty, integrity, and Christian commitment," Geisler says. "The charges that he intentionally lied and embellished are totally unfounded."

Some apologists and blogging critics figure Liberty handled the situation as best it could, going through with the agonizing step of demoting a popular leader. Yet others are incensed that the school has retained Caner; they figure if his offenses are great enough for him to be dismissed as dean, he shouldn't be retained as a religion professor. Many opponents remain unsatisfied that the 43-year-old Caner hasn't made any kind of public statement on the matter since February, when he wrote, "I have never intentionally misled anyone" on his website.

Reformed Baptist blogger Tom Chantry wrote that Liberty's statement "has neither exonerated nor destroyed [Caner]" and "it is impossible to pass final judgment on the career of Ergun Caner." He acknowledged that the decision to demote Caner was "a very difficult one" for Liberty, and suggested that "Caner's failings are the failings of the whole church and that every Christian must shoulder a portion of the blame" for the Charles Finney-inspired emphasis on pastor personalities.

"While Caner's misstatements have become unusually public, they are hardly unique to him," said Chantry. The bigger problem is that "it fails to appear scandalous to Christians who have become comfortable with the idea that preachers regularly tell fibs in the pulpit."

Liberty has given no indication exactly what Caner's future duties will be or who will be the new seminary dean. And it remains to be seen whether the whole episode will hamper student recruitment.

John W. Kennedy is a CT contributing editor based in Springfield, Missouri.

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier Christianity Today coverage of the Caner controversy includes:

Bloggers Target Seminary President | Liberty's Ergun Caner accused of false statements in his testimony about converting from Islam. (May 3)
Liberty University cuts Caner as seminary dean | Trustees' investigation showed "self-contradictory" statements. Caner to remain as professor. (Liveblog, June 26)
Liberty Panel to Investigate Seminary President Caner's Statements (Liveblog, May 10)

CT also posted an editorial on conversion stories.

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