John Dickie (1875-1942): Professor of Theology, Theological Hall Principal, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand

John Dickie was born in St Nicholas Aberdeen on 20 May 1875 shortly before the family moved to farm in the Buchan District of North East Scotland. He attended Aberdeen University from 1891 and graduated MA (Hons) 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 Aberdeen University Literary Society on 7 February 1896.

Attracted to Edinburgh by Professor Flint, Dickie began theological studies in 1897 gaining scholarships and prizes every year. He visited Germany and undertook parish assistantships at Fraserburgh, Burntisland and North Leith.  In 1905-06 he was also assistant to the Professor of Divinity at Edinburgh, H R Mackintosh.

He was elected Assistant and Successor in the Parish of Tarland and Migvie in Deeside and ordained on 4 July 1906.  On 19 September he and Barbara Trotter were married in North Leith. With a rural population of 700, the work in Tarland cannot have been onerous. Dickie was popular with children, liked animals and found time to translate German theology and write for the Expository Times.

In 1909 the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand appointed Dickie to the Chair of Systematic Theology and New Testament at Knox College Dunedin. Laden with 200 books for the Library, the Dickies arrived in Dunedin in March 1910.

His joint translation of Theodore Haering, The Christian Faith, appeared in 1914 the year his and Barbara’s first son, Aleck, was born on 9 May. John was born in 1917 and James in 1919. There were return trips to Scotland in the summers of 1912-13 and 1915-16. In 1919 the University of Aberdeen awarded him an honorary DD, in part as a consolation prize for not winning the appointment to a vacant theological chair.

In 1928 Dickie was appointed first Principal of the Theological Hall. In 1931 he published The Organism of Christian Truth and in 1934 was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church. In December 1936 he gave the Gunning lectures in Edinburgh. He died in Dunedin 24 June 1942 after a short illness. He is commemorated by a stained glass window in the Ross Chapel, Knox College.

Short and stout, he was physically and verbally a character.  The oral tradition of his mannerisms, stories and responses to student pranks, have kept his accent alive 50 years after his death. He brought first-hand knowledge of international theological scholarship to New Zealand in an era for which Scotland was still the home country for most Presbyterians. Many appreciated his prayers in chapel not just his anecdotes in class.

Influences on his thinking included Schleiermacher and Ritschl as well as his own teachers Flint and Mackintosh. He retained a deep piety and an insistence on personal faith in Jesus Christ. Less conservative than some of his colleagues, he was decidedly more than others. Yet Flint had taught on the Kingdom of God and Socialism, and Dickie’s appreciation of the importance of personality for the formulation of theology and the relevance of Christianity to the issues of the day fed minds also stimulated by visits to Dunedin of the young Walter Nash, and the concerns generated by World Wars and Depression. Unlike medical students, “Divs” at Knox practically all voted Labour and one of their number, Arnold Nordmeyer, became a member of the first Labour government.  They also founded the pioneer New Zealand Journal of Theology, printed in Te Kuiti during the height of the Depression.

A fierce patriot whose love of Germany turned to hatred, he could not understand students who courted pacifism or who prayed for conscientious objectors. He made little secret of his dislike for the German refugee, Helmut Rex, appointed to the Hall in 1939. That Rex was a victim of Hitler did not register, 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 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 Whitehead in Dunedin, but an opponent of talks with Methodists. His words were generally judicious, his humour dry and occasionally risqué, but his response in particular situations could be volcanic.

Dickie’s Organism of Christian Truth put New Zealand on the theological map and was a set text in Scotland into the 1950s. Its deeper merits were not appreciated by some Evangelicals of his day such as P B Fraser and Thomas Miller, but have rarely been equalled.  It provided an understandable framework out of which Christian people could grow, keeping together faith and reason, and looking to the application of both to cultures which would one day ask different questions about identity and truth.

John Dickie, Fifty years of British Theology, T&T Clark, 1937.

John Dickie, The Organism of Christian Truth, James Clarke, 1931.

Geoff King, "Organising Christian truth" : an investigation of the life and work of John Dickie: a thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, 1998.

John Roxborogh