John Dickie was born in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on 20 May 1875, the son of Ann Petrie and her husband, John Dickie, a police carter. The family later moved north to farm in the Buchan district of the county, where Dickie was educated at parish schools in Kinninmonth and Old Deer. He attended the University of Aberdeen from 1891 and graduated MA with honours in Classics in 1895. He taught at Buckie Public School from April 1895 to May 1896, and for a year at Helmsdale. His first publication was an essay read to the University of Aberdeen Literary Society on 7 February 1896.
Attracted to the University of Edinburgh by Professor Robert Flint, Dickie began theological studies in 1897, gaining scholarships and prizes every year. He studied in Germany, then returned to Scotland and undertook parish assistantships in Fraserburgh, Burntisland and North Leith. In 1905–6 he was also assistant to the professor of divinity at Edinburgh, W. P. Paterson. Dickie was elected assistant and successor in the rural Church of Scotland parish of Tarland and Migvie in Aberdeenshire and ordained on 4 July 1906. On 19 September he and Barbara Margaret Trotter, a schoolteacher, were married in North Leith, Edinburgh. Dickie found time to translate German theology and to write for the Expository Times.
In 1909 the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand appointed Dickie to the chair of systematic theology, ethics, apologetics and New Testament exegesis at the Presbyterian Theological College, Dunedin. Laden with 200 books for the library, the Dickies arrived in Dunedin in March 1910. As a teacher Dickie impressed students with his range of knowledge and clear exposition of his views. He published a joint translation of Theodore Haering's The Christian faith in 1913. He travelled to Scotland in 1912–13 and 1915–16, and in 1919 the University of Aberdeen awarded him an honorary doctorate of divinity.
In 1928 Dickie was appointed first principal of the Theological Hall. He published The organism of Christian truth in 1931 and in 1934 was moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. In December 1936 he gave the Gunning lectures in Edinburgh; they were published in 1937 as Fifty years of British theology.
Dickie's thinking was influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl. He retained a deep piety and an insistence on personal faith in Jesus Christ. His appreciation of the importance of the personality of the theologian in the formulation of theology and the relevance of Christianity to contemporary issues made a lasting mark on students such as Arnold Nordmeyer.
Dickie's Organism was a work of theological distinction and was a set text in Scotland into the 1950s. The book provided a comprehensible framework for keeping together faith and reason. Its merits were not appreciated by some strict evangelicals. P. B. Fraser, a long-standing adversary, challenged its orthodoxy, as did Thomas Miller. Dickie was, however, formally vindicated.
A fierce patriot whose love of Germany soured, Dickie could not understand students who courted pacifism or prayed for conscientious objectors. He made little secret of his dislike for the German refugee Helmut Rex (Rehbein), appointed to the Theological Hall in 1939. That Rex was a victim of Hitler did not register with Dickie, yet he was to provide a calibre of scholarship and quality of faith close to Dickie's own.
Many remarked on Dickie's appreciation of other religious traditions, but his fairness was not consistent. If he admired Catholics, he disliked ritualism. He encouraged the formation of a Church Service Society, but warned against forms which did not reflect a religion of the heart. He was a personal friend of Archdeacon L. G. Whitehead in Dunedin, but an opponent of Presbyterian talks with Methodists. His words were generally judicious, his humour dry and occasionally risqué, but his response in some situations could be volcanic.
Short and corpulent, John Dickie was a memorable character. Tales of his mannerisms, stories and responses to student pranks have kept his memory alive. He was a convivial host and brilliant conversationalist. An excellent judge of second-hand books, he was known for his failure to return library books. He died in Dunedin on 24 June 1942 after a short illness, survived by his wife and three sons. He is commemorated by a stained glass window in the Ross Chapel, Knox College.