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J. Alec Motyer

Category Articles
Date May 9, 2000

Renowned scholar learned to love the Bible at his grandmother’s knee.

‘I’m not really a scholar,’ says J. Alec Motyer softly, ‘I’m just a man who loves the Word of God.’

Now retired as principal of Trinity College in Bristol, England, Motyer has spent his professional career studying the Bible. However, he learned to love the Scriptures at his grandmother’s knee in Ireland. ‘Grandma was, in worldly terms, a comparatively uneducated lady,’ Motyer says, ‘but she was a great Bible woman. Biblical studies have simply confirmed that which I learned from Grandma–that the Bible is the Word of God–and made it a coherently held position.’

He adds, ‘I had a conversion experience when I was 15, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love the Word of God.’

That love is quickly evident. Motyer’s speech is filled with Biblical references and allusions. It takes only a little longer to realize that he has understated his scholarly abilities, so lightly does he wear his considerable learning. Having served the Church as both pastor and professor, much of Motyer’s academic life has been devoted to the study of the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah. A widely respected scholar who now spends his time lecturing and writing, Motyer is the Old Testament editor of The Bible Speaks Today, a commentary series from InterVarsity Press. He gave this interview to The Presbyterian Layman (

What has liberal scholarship done to the Old Testament?

Motyer: It has removed the Old Testament from popular understanding. The majority of people who have gone through liberal schools in their Old Testament studies have come out totally uncertain of what the Old Testament is about. When people are taught the documentary theory they cease to understand the Pentateuch. They’ve lost the whole flow, the doctrinal as well as the historical. They’ve ceased to be able to grasp the centrality, for example, of covenantal theology.

Has it been your experience that many Christians spend little time reading the Old Testament?

Motyer: Very much so. Of course, nowadays we don’t live in a literary generation. We live in a generation of lookers, not readers. That is one of our great problems as Christians. We are book people in a non-book world.

What are Christians missing by not reading the Old Testament?

Motyer: The death of the Lord Jesus as understood in Old Testament categories. We don’t understand the cross unless we understand the Old Testament category of sacrifice and the shedding of blood. Likewise, the New Testament doesn’t have as strong a stated doctrine of creation. It leans on the Old Testament to reveal the nature of man and the nature of God as creator.

We have a two way traffic. I’m very drawn to the model I first read in John Bright of the two-act play. If you have a two-act play and only have act one you ask, Where is it going? If you only have act two, you ask, Where has it come from? That is a very penetrating view of the Scriptures.

Are the Old and New Testaments compatible?

Motyer: The whole Bible is bound together around the single theme ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’ The same way of salvation is found right throughout the Bible. We trust the promises of God and are saved. I would lay most stress on the singleness and unity of the people of God running right through the Bible. We are the people of God. [Early believers] should never have allowed the people of Antioch to get away with nicknaming them Christians. Our proper name is Israel.

How would you answer the modern Marcionites who effectively teach that there is a God of law and a God of love and that Christians must follow the God of love?

Motyer: Well it’s just not true. That’s the beginning and end of that one. It’s just ignoring so much evidence in each testament. It’s trading in prejudice and lack of knowledge. The Old Testament is the place where we learn about the good shepherd looking after his sheep. God is in love with us. His heart goes pitter-patter when he sees us. That’s so plain in the Old Testament. Likewise the wrath and holiness of God are equally plain in the New Testament.

How do you convince ministers and lay people that the Old Testament is an important part of God’s self-revelation?

Motyer: Apart from taking every opportunity to speak to people about the Old Testament, to show them what a lovely and fascinating book it is, the slow drip method, I don’t know of any other. We need to get the people to read the Bible for themselves and become acquainted with the fact that the same mix of material occurs in the Old as well as the New. We need to ask, If you think the Old Testament is the book of a wrathful God, have you read Revelation lately? Try to get people to fall in love with the whole thing and not come with prejudgments about what love is and what love would do.

How important are questions such as who wrote the first five books of the Bible?

Motyer: The veracity of Scripture is well into this discussion because of the authorship claim. If a book makes an authorship claim, that is part of the revealed scripture. We must start with that and see how it works. We must not divert unless there is good reason for doing so.

When New Testament scholars dispute the Petrine authorship of 2 Peter or the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, they are touching on the veracity of Scripture.

There is no authorship claim in Genesis, therefore we must leave that aside and see if any of the rest of the Bible instructs us on that. For the rest of the Pentateuch, the Mosaic claim is very strong indeed. Nothing in Exodus is free of Mosaic mediation. And when we come to Deuteronomy, the words ‘Moses said’ and ‘God said’ are used as equivalents.

I don’t think serious Bible study can skate round the claim and testimony of the document itself. I think there has been a methodological error. In every branch of study the student starts from what the subject claims. Whereas in Biblical studies the starting point of study has so often been what seems to be a problem. Starting from that problem the whole construction of the documents is read out. You can’t start any study from a problem, you must start from testimony. But that would leave egg on many faces and require the rewriting of many books.

What can contemporary Christians learn from the various divisions of the Old Testament, the Law, the Prophets, the Writings?

Motyer: What is laid down in the Law is basic, the basic revelation of the holy God and how sinners can be made acceptable to that holy God. That is very definitely the message of the Law, the Pentateuch.

The Pentateuch prepares for the Prophets. Deuteronomy is emphatic that those who have come to God through his saving grace now have a pattern of life to live out. The prophets elaborate on that. I don’t think it’s true to say the prophets are innovators. They are expositors. They expound on and apply Mosaic theology.

The Writings either tell us what to do with it, as in the Psalms, how to rejoice in the truth of God, or wrestle with it, as in Job and Ecclesiastes. The intended implication of a wisdom and power higher than ours and wider than ours is clearly there. God says, ‘Can you sit on the throne? I can. There are powers in the universe that you can’t oppose but I can.’

If you have a God of wisdom, justice and power, you have no escape hatch. Take any of those out and deny it and life is totally logical. Put all three together and the only way to face life is faith.

How are the Psalms useful to our Christian faith and life?

Motyer: In many ways. First in a formal way they are our window into the Old Testament, therefore they are a corrective. I think many Christians assume that the Pharisees are typical Old Testament men. They forget that Jesus said the Pharisees were a plant his heavenly Father never planted. The real window for us, what was it like to live as a believer in Old Testament times, is the Psalms.

Second, they are a great challenge. Here are people who knew far less about God than we do and yet loved him a great deal more. Third, they are instructive. They are lovely poems in their own right. If you sat down and analyzed them as poetry you would come out with a rich theology.

What are some of the consequences when the church fails to protect its members from poor or even false teaching?

Motyer: The main consequence of the moment is that we are ethically illiterate. Great moral questions are being aired without professing Christian people having any guidelines on the matter. The big question is homosexuality. The vast majority of people intuitively feel that this is not something they want to go along with, but they don’t have any basis of scriptural teaching on which to rest or from which to draw conclusions.

All sorts of things have happened in my lifetime and found the Church totally unprepared. The breakdown of marriage, for example; the sexual revolution, which is not really a revolution at all but just uncontrolled sexuality. That has not been faced by the Church as a whole with any firm, reasoned response.

What can people do who are not receiving sound Biblical teaching in their churches?

Motyer: The vast majority don’t know what they’re missing. They’re not aware of the loss. If people come alive in God and have been brought into a new dimension of faith through the ministry of the Word of God, then they want such teaching and they are faced with jolly difficult decisions. Do they stay where they are and soldier on?

Philip didn’t seem to worry when he was snatched away and the eunuch was left on his own. He didn’t scratch his head and say, ‘What about counseling?’ He said, ‘He is a man with the Word of God. He’s safe. Let him get on with it.’ I think many, many people would seek out a church where the Word of God is preached and transfer their allegiance, and that’s a difficult thing to do.

This interview was conducted by Robert P. Mills of The Presbyterian Layman Tuesday, May 9, 2000

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