A Remembrance of J. A. Motyer

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.
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