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A Tribute to J. Alec Motyer (1924-2016)

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 26 Aug 2016

Lee Gatiss looks at the life and work of Alec Motyer, the great Anglican pastor and Old Testament scholar, who has died.

Born John Alexander Motyer in 1924, he studied at Trinity College, Dublin where he was awarded BA, MA, and BD degrees. He trained for Anglican ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and was a curate in Lichfield diocese before becoming a theological college tutor in Bristol. He was Vice Principal of Clifton Theological College (1954-1965) before going back into parish ministry at St Luke’s, West Hampstead for 5 years.

The call to theological education remained with him, however, and he soon returned to Bristol and was Principal and Dean of Trinity College there (1971-1981). J. I. Packer was Associate Principal with him during these years, and everyone I’ve ever met who trained there at this time speaks very warmly indeed of the positive, Reformed and evangelical nature of the training and pastoral formation they received under Jim and Alec. The latter left Bristol to take up another ministerial position at Christ Church, Westbourne in 1981, from where he retired in 1989.

Alec was both a scholarly and a popular writer. He was the Old Testament editor of the Bible Speaks Today commentary series, contributing his own unique volumes to that series, on Amos (1974), Philippians (1984), James (1985), and most recently Exodus (2005). His magnum opus (in my humble opinion) is his first commentary on Isaiah, published in 1993, which was followed by other smaller commentaries on the same book, as well as popular level volumes on the Old Testament and on preaching.

He was a close reader of the text, with a keen eye for chiasms and other literary devices in scripture. “I’m not really a scholar,” he once said, “I’m just a man who loves the Word of God.” This came across in everything he wrote and lectured on. I remember being riveted by a talk he gave to the theological students’ fellowship in Oxford when I was an undergraduate (which later became the article on Isaiah, in the list below); and his talks on the covenant at Word Alive in Skegness in 1994 were so utterly gripping and absolutely compelling that I immediately bought the cassette recordings and almost wore my tape player out by listening to them again and again!

He was a prolific contributor to the Church Society journal, Churchman, writing an enthusiastic number of book reviews and several articles for us over the course of five decades. These betray his obvious interests in the Old Testament, in covenant theology, and in Anglicanism:

Circumcision and Baptism (1956)
The Baptismal Relevance of Mark 10:13ff. (1956)
The Defence and Confirmation of the Gospel (1958)
Principles of Prayer Book Revision (1962)
The Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture (1964)
Three in One or One in Three: A Dipstick into the Isaianic Literature (1994)

Alec had a winsome, self-deprecating sense of humour, a lilting Irish brogue, and a genius for illustrative stories which can be sampled in some of his more recent sermons from Poynton Parish Church where he preached regularly in retirement. He was influential in the lives of other great scholars and teachers such as Don Carson and Tim Keller (as you can read here), and encouraging to us younger folks too (I treasure the letters he wrote to me and a commendation he once gave me for a book), and you can hear a little about his heart for teaching others in this 14 minute video interview.

Alec was a pillar of the evangelical Anglican establishment in the second half of the twentieth century, and a terrific example of a Reformed evangelical Bible commentator. As the “church militant here on earth” becomes increasingly bereft of those in that great generation, we must pray fervently for the continuation of their legacy — especially for the production of more Bible-loving, theologically-rigorous resources which feed warm-hearted, Christ-exalting preaching, but also for more Anglicans with his love for the word and for Reformation truths.

I close with some appropriate words from Alec’s 1996 book After Death: What Happens When You Die? He wrote:

“To Christians the love of God is a reason for confidence in relation to death and the life to come. We face death with equanimity and hope — a joyful, expectant, sure hope — because we have come to know that not even death can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39), and this love has been so perfectly proved that we can go forward fearlessly, for he who has loved us loves us still, and always will love us. Therefore we are secure.” — Alec Motyer (1924-2016)

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.

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