Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Historiography, Primary Source Material, and Norman Geisler

I love history.

I’ve always loved history. It fascinates me to discover what has happened in the past. In addition to my studies to prepare for Sundays, I’m often reading, for recreation and my own personal satisfaction, some sort of history.

But have you ever stopped and wondered just how we know what has happened in the past? I mean, how do we really know?

It is often said that, “History is written by the winners,” implying that all historical sources contain biased materials. This is true of many sources, but by no means all. Historians have, over the years, developed methodology and criteria for weighing source materials in their efforts to uncover the events of the past. This methodology and criteria is called Historiography.

Webster’s defines historiography as “the writing of history; especially: the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” Very basically, historiography encompasses the examination and evaluation of historical source material to determine it’s trustworthiness and usefulness in constructing the historical narrative.

Most people think of history as the study of the past, and, in a general sense, that is correct. But, more specifically, history is the study of the written records of the past. This is why times before written records are called “prehistoric.” The earliest records we have are clay tablets and inscriptions in stones. These are nice because they tend to last for a long time. For later periods, historians have records on papyrus, parchment and paper. For more modern historical periods, the types of records also extend to photographs, motion pictures, audio & video recordings, and electronic records of all types.

Archaeologists can tell you that a house once stood somewhere. They can tell you how big it was and how it was built. They might even be able to tell you what kind of food was cooked on the hearth. But archaeology isn’t able to tell you who lived in the house, what their names were, or why they even lived there in the first place. Written records, if they can be found, can tell you all of these things and more. Archaeology can help color in the picture that history draws, but archaeology isn’t history, and our knowledge of prehistory, while helpful and interesting, is, at best, very sketchy.

(Yes, I know that archaeologists find written records, but learning about what happened in the past from written records in history not archaeology, even if it is done by an archaeologist. A brain surgeon might fix your car, but that doesn’t make auto repair brain surgery. But I digress.)

I find all history fascinating, but my particular interests lie in ancient and mediaeval history. And, the further you go back in time, the less and less sure you can be of all the details. Also, the further back in time you go the more and more the records you have are restricted to “important” things like kings and kingdoms and generals and battles and wars. Prior to the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s, all books and such had to be hand written, and so were rare and expensive. Also, nobody thought it was very important to record what Joe the Blacksmith did on a Tuesday afternoon in a small village in England in 1242. But people did record what the kings and queens and lords and ladies were doing. Especially important events like wars and plagues and the like.

Similar to a detective pouring over evidence and witness statements while trying to solve a crime, it is the job of the historian to pour through written records of historical events and try to construct a picture of what happened. Historiography is the science and methodology that they use to try to decide which records are trustworthy, which are not trustworthy, and just how much any of the records can be trusted, anyway. Basically, the historian asks, “Who says?” and “How does he know?”

“Who says?”

The historian must ask, “Who wrote this? Why was it written? What, if any, axe does the writer have to grind here?” A book written about Adolf Hitler by a Nazi officer may have some good information in it, but it is also going to have a different point of view then a book about Adolf Hitler by a survivor of Auschwitz. (Granted, those are two extremes, but you get the idea.)

“How does he know?”

The other thing the historian must do is determine what type of source he has to work with. Was the person in a position to know what really happened? Historians divided sources up into 3 categories based upon how far the records are from the historical events recorded: Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, and Tertiary Sources.

A primary source is written by someone who was in a position to know personally what happened. A primary source is eye-witness material, written by someone who was there when it happened. One of the things that made Ken Burns’ The Civil War so compelling was all the letters from actual soldiers that are read as part of the narration of the film. Those letters are what a historian would call primary source material. (Also, the photographs taken during the Civil War that were used in the film are also primary sources.)

A secondary source is a written record that has been compiled from primary sources. Historians look at all the primary records of an event or historical period and put them together into a more or less complete picture. A newspaper article or a police report based on witness interviews are examples of secondary sources. If you’ve ever been involved in something that made the newspaper, you probably have some idea of the unreliability of secondary sources.

A tertiary source is a written record that has been compiled from multiple secondary sources. Many popular histories fall into this category, where the author pulls material out of other history books and weaves together his narrative. Such works can be helpful, and are often enjoyable to read, but they are the least consistently reliable as far as historical accuracy is concerned. Generally, tertiary sources are to be avoided for serious research purposes.

One thing that is repeatedly pounded into history students in Introduction to Historiography class is the importance of primary sources to historical accuracy. The closer a source is to the events recorded, the more weight you can put on that sources’ account of those events. History books are written by people who have already done the research and reached their own conclusions. Their books are written to present the conclusions of the authors. History books are helpful, certainly, but the more important knowledge of history is to you, the more you want to rely of primary source documentation.

When you start taking college-level history courses, you don’t get as many of the nice, pre-packaged history books like you got in elementary and high schools. Instead, you often get stacks of narratives and accounts of events from people who were there. You are not reading the words written by some historical researcher, you are the historical researcher, reading the words of the people who lived and breathed the time, place, and happenings that you are studying. If you want to know what really happened, you need to go to the source materials yourself.

That is why I compiled The Caner File, so that interested parties could see and hear the claims that Ergun Caner had made and examine the primary source documents that refuted those claims. I studied history at the University of Montana back in the early 1990’s, and I learned that research that relied mainly on primary sources was the most reliable. History was my major, and, while I did not graduate, (for several reasons, chiefly financial,) I’d like to think that I did learn something useful.

Historiography, Primary Source Material, & Norman Geisler

Why am I bringing all this up? Because I read several things yesterday that I find very troubling.

About 10 or 11 o’clock yesterday morning, I was directed to the following statement posted on Norman Geisler’s Facebook page. Dr. Geisler is a well known Christian author, speaker, and teacher. He is the president of Veritas Theological Seminary. He wrote on his Facebook wall:

An extensive independent investigation has exonerated Dr. Ergun Caner of all the false charges made against him by extreme Muslims and others and has been retained as a Professor at Liberty University. In spite of a few misstatements (which we all make and he has corrected), nothing has diminished his testimony and orthodoxy as one of the great Christian voices of our time. I totally support him.

Dr. Geisler’s statement is troubling to me. Here he is, one of the leading Evidentialist apologists in the world, and he does not deal with any of the evidence. He does not say that he has examined the evidence himself, nor does he give his criteria for why he has rejected it. This is really a problem for an evidentialist, isn’t it?

Then, last evening, I read a twitter exchange between a presuppositional apologist & blogger, Joshua Whipps, known as “RazorsKiss,” and Dr. Leo Percer, a professor at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary & Director of their PhD program in Theology and Apologetics. They were discussing Dr. Caner’s removal as President and Dean of LBTS, and Liberty’s statement about it. I’m not going to reconstruct the whole conversation, but, at one point, RazorsKiss tweeted to Dr Percer, “@leopercer You do understand that there is evidence to look to, and has been for months, correct? You have examined it?” To which, Dr. Percer replied, “@RazorsKiss I haven't seen it, I said I don't know.”

Again, we see an intelligent and educated man, a professor of apologetics, who has not even examined the evidence for himself. Dr. Percer has been a vocal defender of Dr. Caner’s ever since the allegations of lying became public and Liberty University announced their investigation. It seems, by his own admission, that he has never bothering to check the sources for himself.

Also troubling is this statement, released a couple of weeks ago, by popular apologist John Ankerberg on his website:

To Whom It May Concern:

I have known Ergun Caner for nearly a decade. I am disheartened by the recent attacks upon his integrity and character. I have interviewed Ergun for more than a dozen television shows and believe his personal testimony to be completely true. Otherwise, I would not have allowed him to broadcast his story to the millions of viewers that tune in to my program across the globe. 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. For someone to attack Ergun’s selfless sacrifice, especially since they malign his character without any substantiation, is both unchristian and unbiblical. Count me among the many who will stand with Ergun Caner, knowing he stands for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Dr. John F. Ankerberg

Again we have an evidentialist who refuses to address the evidence. All of Dr. Caner's "factual statements that are self-contradictory" are simply dismissed out of hand. Dr. Ankerberg makes no effort to show why the evidence is wrong or misleading.

Now some would say that Doctors Geisler, Percer, and Ankerberg are primary sources themselves, as they all know Dr. Caner personally. However, none of them knew him during the time that is in dispute. We do not know exactly when Doctors Geisler and Percer met Dr. Caner, but neither of them claim to have known Dr. Caner prior to his conversion. In fact, Dr. Percer says explicitly that he was not a witness to any of the events in dispute. Dr. Ankerberg says quite clearly that he has known Dr. Caner less than 10 years, so his personal knowledge of Caner came after September 11, 2001; after “Michael ‘Butch’ Caner” had become “Ergun Mehmet Caner.”

In fact, Doctors Geisler, Percer, and Ankerberg all have vested interests in keeping Dr. Caner "in the clear" that go beyond friendship.

In his statement, Dr. Ankerberg says, "I have interviewed Ergun for more than a dozen television shows and believe his personal testimony to be completely true. Otherwise, I would not have allowed him to broadcast his story to the millions of viewers that tune in to my program across the globe." This clearly links his credibility with Dr. Caner's. If Dr. Caner's credibility is in doubt, that reflects on Dr. Ankerberg and his ministry as well.

In the case of Dr. Geisler, it should be noted that Dr. Caner teaches at Dr. Geisler's seminary. Once again, we see that their credibility is linked. And Dr. Percer teaches at the school where Dr. Caner is, at least until midnight tonight, the president and dean.

I find it utterly amazing that none of these men see the damage that they are doing to their own credibility by blindly supporting Ergun Caner without any regard for the evidence that abounds in this case.

In all the discussions I’ve had over the last few months regarding Ergun Caner, I’ve not spoken to, corresponded with, or read anything written by anyone who was defending Ergun Caner where they actually dealt with any of the evidence. My Daddy used to always tell me, “Son, if one person tells you that you’ve grown a tail, you can laugh; but if everyone is telling you that you’ve grown a tail, you’d better turn around and see if you have.”

post signature


Tom Chantry said...

Bravo, Squirrel!

I love history myself. I studied it at Furman University (which was once an SBC school but no longer) and find that I enjoy reading history even more now than I did when I was a student. I have always believed that the study of history has much to teach us of how to get at truth.

Your post reminds me of an incident from my first year at seminary. We were assigned a paper comparing and contrasting a philosopher's view of man with the Scriptural view. I was assigned John Dewey. Now I knew nothing at all about Dewey, so I went to the librarian and asked what Dewey's major works were. He gave me a list and helped me cull it down to those which would deal with the nature of man. Some of the books were available there; for others I went to a local library. I read and studied, and consequently I wrote with true knowledge of Dewey's views. Now I didn't do this because I was some sort of genius, but because my history professors had pounded into me the very lesson you are giving here today.

To my dismay, and even more so to that of the professor, a large number of my classmates never thought to actually read the philosophers they were critiquing. A paper on Nietzsche, for instance, was less likely to cite the works of Nietzsche than it was a Christian textbook on modern philosophy. Our professor was outraged. He fumed against the class for a half hour before his next lecture: "Never put your own ideas of a subject on paper until you have made yourself an expert in the original source material; if you do, you'll make a fool of yourself!"

And that is exactly the lesson that is ringing throughout the internet today regarding Ergun Caner. That some respectable men (I leave out the SBC Today hooligans) still defend Caner without having learned the facts is stunning. Where were these men educated?

It all demonstrates something I've long held; the world needs more genuine students of history.

Trevor said...

Loved the post. I hope to one day be able to write as engaging as such a post was. Sorry for not having a ton to contribute, but I really appreciate the voices of reason amidst the whole Caner debacle (and conversely, am baffled by how non-thinking some people seem to be when airing their opinions).

Here's a question I guess: Has anyone come across a voice of reason who is "on the side" of Ergun? I haven't...and honestly this strikes fear and dismay in me more than anger.

Chris Poe said...


Excellent post. Like Bro. Chantry, I too studied history.

Now, it must be noted that the above mentioned evidentialists did look at one piece of "evidence"--that those raising the questions about Ergun Caner were largely Calvinists as well as a few Muslims. Then based on their presuppositions, the charges were dismissed out of hand as specious since apparently in their eyes they could only be motivated by those seeking to tear down one of their own.

Chris Poe said...


The only one who I can think of who might be considered on Dr. Caner's "side" that resembled a voice of reason was Dr. Bart Barber in the sense that he was interested in actually seeing evidence instead of just shooting the messenger. Dr. Barber used to be a contributor on SBC Today. He hasn't made any statement on Liberty's action that I'm aware of, but that is likely because he is currently out of the country.

Bennett Willis said...

Tom C: I really appreciated your posts on the issues regarding EC--and I think it was because of their thoughtfulness and consideration rather than because we happened to share essentially the same view. When your professor fumed at the class for half an hour, I suspect that his lecture notes said, "Scold the class about sources." I'm confident that this was an issue every semester. People are distressingly consistent.

Squirrel: The issues of checking the data are interesting. From my personal experience, it took less than five minutes to conclude that there was a serious problem with EC. I had only to check one of the more interesting differences against the information from primary sources and observe the contradictions. There were many more problems that became apparent as I read additional primary sources and compared them to other documentation, but to reach a preliminary hypothesis was the “work of minutes.” From my personal experience, I know that if someone I knew well was being “charged” with embellishment of his c.v. and if sources were “just a click away,” that I would not be able to resist checking the sources. I tend to credit any “research historian” with similar curiosity.

Now, I have a problem. Either the men squelched their curiosity and instincts (because they knew that they might be called upon to give “testimony”) or they checked a few items and decided it would be wise not to check more. Or maybe they followed this like watching a “train wreck.” It would be interesting to have “Abby and Tim from NCIS” dissect their browser histories and find out what is correct. At this point, I think that they picked their side and then got on the train. Even though they could see the tracks were out ahead.

Loyalty is lovely, but being stupidly loyal is stupid. And it keeps the problem alive long past its natural death. I also think that it delays repentance. Simple silence would be much better—and we have several people who knew what was going on from the start who have maintained their silence. Unindicted co-conspirator is the description that comes to mind for them.

Bennett Willis said...

Trevor, someone (likely My Peace) posted a couple of links to EC friendly blogs--on one of the Oklahoma blogs, I think. I went to them but was in a hurry and I have lost the links. The one I remember was D(iana)R(uth)Penn who said that she had removed all her postings on the subject as she had promised to do if EC was punished (or something along this line) so there was nothing there to try to understand. I cannot remember the name of the other but (like you) would go back there if I could find it. The blog name had "shining" or "sparkling" or similar words in it, I think.

Bennett Willis said...

Trevor, if you Google dianaruth, blog and plebian you can find a cached blog. It does not deal with any of the information about EC though. It is dedicated completely to James White.

I had forgotten her commitment details on the deletions.

"I also said that when this was ‘over’, I would delete all of my posts about Ergun Caner/ James White – win or lose. I did that."

The Squirrel said...


Honestly, I have not met anyone who has been defending Caner to the level of Geisler, Pencer, or Ankerberg (or Rogers or Guthrie or Lumpkins or Penn or...) who has actually dealt with the evidence.


The Squirrel said...

I've been running all day, but I just took time to read through y'all's comments again.

Tom, your quote from you professor is excellent advice; "Never put your own ideas of a subject on paper until you have made yourself an expert in the original source material; if you do, you'll make a fool of yourself!"

Bennett wrote: "From my personal experience, it took less than five minutes to conclude that there was a serious problem with EC... to reach a preliminary hypothesis was the 'work of minutes.'"

Exactly right. It's not like we were asking folks to spend hours and hours doing research. We'd just like them to actually really look at the research done by Jason Smathers, TurretinFan, and others. I (painfully) listened to hours of Ergun Caner, because I was following the advice of Tom's old professor, but Caner's defenders can't be bothered to honestly apply basic logic to the evidence that has been made available to them. It is a classic case of "Don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up."

Thank you all for your comments. It is a pleasure having you all stop by.


DE123 said...

I'm just a person in the claim to genius or even a bachelor's degree..but noticed a long time ago that this was a case of Non-thinkers vs. Thinkers.

The Thinkers, of course, being those who realized Caner is a liar.

Those defending Caner have the worst case of "sticking one's head in the sand" that I've ever seen. The evidence is takes only a couple of minutes to find...and it is overwhelming. I certainly didn't need a seminary degree to see it.

Proud to be an A & O Minion. LOL

Bennett Willis said...

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.

Bennett Willis said...

Dr. Geisler's defense of EC is depressing. You better copy it quick before it is gone.

He does say that he has examined the evidence even though he did not find it necessary to cite any of it.

We have heard it all before, I think.

Bennett Willis said...

the link.

The Squirrel said...


Yes, I've read it. Sad. It seems to be an expansion of his brief "defense" that was put out last week. I do wonder what the source for his "evidence" (not that any is presented at all) is? There was rumors of a Caner memo to LU faculty and staff back in April or May that hasn't surfaced, I wonder if Geisler is parroting that?

It just keeps getting weirder and weirder!


Bennett Willis said...

This is a screenshot of the relatively short memo. It may be the one you are looking for. He says that he has answers for the (then) 10 Kahn videos. Ms. Kaufman had a link to it.

This does not seem to relate to Dr. Geisler's posting.

Verification word: liesims

The Squirrel said...


It isn't that memo, but what that memo refers to at the bottom. Notice that it says, "We scoured all ten videos he uploaded, and prepared answers to his objections. Feel free to come by office and pick up a copy." I'm wondering if Geisler is using Ergun's "answers" to MoKahn's videos as the basis for his "refutation"? Geisler's statement seems to be aimed at "Muslim Allegations" doesn't it? With a reference to "extreme Calvinists" thrown in just to spice it up.

Geisler says, "he traveled to Turkey with his father..." I've seen that explanation floated at several of Caner's defenders' blogs back in late April and early May. I'm thinking we're seeing in Geisler's statement the "talking points" put out by the Caner camp in April.


Bennett Willis said...

I have never heard a hint of that one being public. Like you, I have heard this sort of explanation "floated" from time to time but never with anything that seemed like it had any basis. I would expect that if a defender really had access to the memo that they could not have resisted hinting at it (or stronger) during one of the "more emotional" exchanges.

The 2002 interview with the Turkish language paper implied (said, actually) that they had almost no contact with their relatives in Turkey. I suppose that would not rule out a visit, but it sure did not sound like there had been one.

Dr. Geisler is clearly copy/pasting from some document since he put in the paragraph about being Turkish two times. A lot of the text sounds familiar, but that may be due to reading so many comments over the months. There are only so many ways to say nothing.

The Squirrel said...

James White has done a lengthy 4 part analysis of Norm Geisler’s statement in defense of Ergun Caner that Bennett linked to above:

Of Joseph Smith and Ergun Caner (Part 1)
Of Joseph Smith and Ergun Caner (Part 2)
Of Joseph Smith and Ergun Caner (Part 3)
Of Joseph Smith and Ergun Caner (Part 4)

TurretinFan has also responded to Geisler in 3 parts:

Responding to Norman Geisler’s Defense of Ergun Caner – Part 1
Responding to Norman Geisler’s Defense of Ergun Caner – Part 2
Wrapping Up Geisler’s Defense of Caner

While there is, predictably, a lot of overlap between the two series, each talks of things not mentioned by the other.


Bennett Willis said...

These first two are comments/links from TF’s Part 1 commentary on NG’s defense of EC.

"I am a Persian Turkish immigrant raised as a Sunni Muslim, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I left Islam in 1982, the same year I became an American citizen."

Since this is a direct quote from EC, it qualifies as a primary source. states that Ergun gained citizenship in 1984.

TrueLife would be a secondary source but you know that they try hard to put up the information they are given.

This is the quote from NG’s defense. 3) Ergun said they moved to America in 1969 and in another place he said it was 1978. More precisely, he got his citizenship in 1978.

No wonder NG is confused. Who would not be confused.
[This comment has been left on several threads.]

Lydia said...

I have seen this phenomenon before in top level Christian circles. And I have repented of being a part of the PR machine that spinned the "truth" on such occassions.

It is simple: They don't want to know the details.

That is why they refuse to engage in facts. They want to make blanket statements without allowing questions. They seem to think their 'take' on it should be the last word.

The question is: Why would they think that? I know the answer because I lived in that world for years.

Bennett Willis said...

"In all the discussions I’ve had over the last few months regarding Ergun Caner, I’ve not spoken to, corresponded with, or read anything written by anyone who was defending Ergun Caner where they actually dealt with any of the evidence." (from the original posting)

I followed a link back to this comment and thread--and discovered that I had made several comments which still seem to be relevant and true. (Ouch, I hurt my arm patting myself on the back.) I still feel that it is one of the best commentaries on "attack/defense" blogging that I have ever seen or participated in. It seems to me that usually one side or the other is reluctant to address the facts/documentation of the situation.