J. Alec Motyer: A Personal Remembrance

I left for England from Los Angeles in September 1977 because of one man and one book: J. I. Packer and Knowing God. Looking back, it was quite naïve of me to undertake such a journey knowing so little about my destination. As we were about to land in London, an English fellow noticed I was reading a biography of John Calvin (T. H. L. Parker's, as I recall). His curiosity led to a discussion of my goal of Trinity College study with Packer... "And Motyer," he said. Motyer? I knew nothing of Motyer. J. A. "Alec Motyer," he clarified. Still my face was a blank. "You are in for a treat."

Preacher and Lecturer

"Packer and Motyer" (we came to speak of them as one) were and are simply the two most godly men I have ever known. "What Packer is in print, Motyer is from the pulpit and lectern," I would tell my uninformed countrymen. His Old Testament lectures and sermons were beyond superlative. So moved, so inspired, so illuminated , so thrilled was I by his teaching that I undertook a month of intensive Hebrew at Fuller Seminary in California just so I could sit in on one of his Hebrew exegesis classes my second year at Trinity. At times he would refer to the comments on the psalm made to his young daughter as he put her to bed the night before; we all glanced around knowingly, as if to say, "Oh to be a fly on the wall for those lessons!"


Each weekday the entire college gathered for lunch. The food typically was English-bland, and 30 years after Victory in Europe Day, in war rationing quantities. The fellowship was wonderful, but the highlight (besides the tea) was Mr. Motyer's closing prayer following a review of the college's life. The prayer before the meal was very brief. "For these and all thy mercies we give Thee thanks, O Lord, in our Savior's name, amen." Motyer was devout but not sanctimonious. It was time to eat; no sense delaying the hungry. The prayer following the meal was long, and worth the price of admission. He was no Prayer Book cripple. He prayed as he preached, with an Irishman's passion and filled with Scripture. I never missed lunch, despite the food, because I didn't want to miss the prayer.


I don't know if I've ever known a more delightful man. Certainly I've not known one who said more delightful things. Over the months we collected our favorite "Motyerisms."

  • "The abomination of desolation" - his term for the page separating the Old Testament from the New Testament, creating the impression of discontinuity rather than continuity.
  • "Bible words have Bible meanings" - his rebuff of the atomizing of biblical studies and of scholars failing in the process to see how key terms are shaped by biblical usage.
  • "If you can believe that, you can believe anything" - his conclusion after a brilliant 15 minute review of the Documentary Hypothesis, that is, the theory of multiple authorship of the Pentateuch (the so-called J-E-P-D sources), replacing the traditional understanding of Mosaic authorship.
  • "Don't lose your nerve" - his exhortation to those called upon to translate aloud Hebrew passages, who were getting flustered in the process.
  • "Do thyself no harm, we are all here," his more general exhortation, from Acts 16:28, to those flustered by life more generally.
  • "The effect has been to take the Bible out of the hands of ordinary people, and deliver the saints to the scholars" - his assessment of the net impact of the previous 100 years of biblical scholarship.
  • "The award the Ph.D's today for distinctions I learned sitting at my grandmother's knees" - his evaluation of scholarly writings, which highlight the distinctive emphases of the four gospels.
  • "the logic of the Holy Spirit" - his way of urging us to pay attention to connective words and phrases: therefore, for, so then, because, in order that, etc.
  • "the place of prayer" - his lesson from nearly every psalm. Whatever life brings, the people of God resort to "the place of prayer."
  • "the people of God" - his favorite of identifying Christians (his least favorite term), that is, believing the Old Testament and New Testament.
  • "Gird up the loins of your mind" - his way of warning us that we were about to plunge into the deeper things of God's word.
  • "Do not all the Scriptures speak with one voice!" - his exclamation after identifying the principles of grace and obedience, sacrifice and law, in the Old and New Testament texts, such as John 1:7.

Mr. Motyer's lasting contribution, if not the recordings of his lectures and sermons, will be his publications. He holds the distinction, along with John Stott, of writing commentaries about which one may say, "If I have his, I have all I need." His biblical commentaries are gems: Philippians, James, Amos and Exodus in The Bible Speaks Today series; Psalms in The New Bible Commentary, Revised; Zephaniah and Haggai in Baker's Exegetical and Expository Commentary series; Isaiah in the Tyndale series, and his larger stand-alone commentary on Isaiah published by InterVarsity. He recently has published two devotional commentaries, Isaiah by the Day and Psalms by the Day. There are scores of other articles and books, among the best is Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ, in which he ties the whole biblical message together with Christ in the center.

In some ways, the best introduction to Motyer's theology, his love of the Bible, his love of words, his expository skill, his wit, and his Motyerisms is his recent book Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simple Preaching (2013). It is a treasure-trove of wisdom and insight into the minister's primary task.

It's been nearly 40 years since I stepped onto the grounds of Trinity College and met Mr. Motyer (as we all called him). Hardly a week has gone by since then that I haven't thought of him. His influence upon me today is as strong as it was decades ago. We his students loved and admired "Alec." Motyer and Packer (the names are reversible), I repeat, are simply the most godly men I have ever known. They are like the extraordinary 17th century Puritans, such as Owen, Baxter, Gurnall, Charnock, etc., whose writings live on and on and on. Given the combination of scholarship, piety, and wit, I don't know if we'll see their like again.