Nolan was born in Cape Town, South Africa, as a fourth-generation South African of English descent. Reading the works of Thomas Merton, Nolan became attracted to the idea of religious life (i.e. joining a religious order). Eventually he joined the Dominican Order in 1954, and studied in South Africa and Rome, where he received a doctorate.
In the 1960s, he taught theology at the Dominican training institution in South Africa, associated with the University of Stellenbosch. In the 1970s, he became the national chaplain to the National Catholic Federation of Students.
From 1976 to 1984, he was Vicar-General of the Dominicans in South Africa. In 1983, he was elected Master of the Order of Preachers. He however declined the office which would have meant transferring to his order's Rome headquarters, preferring to remain in South Africa during this decade of intense political and social transition. During this period he worked for the Institute for Contextual Theology, and was involved in the circle of pastors and theologians who started the process that led to the Kairos Document in 1985.
In the 1990s, as a result of his conviction that theology must come from the grassroots level and not an academic, he started a radical church magazine called Challenge, of which he was the editor for many years. From 2000-2004, Nolan served a third term as Vicar-General of the Dominicans in South Africa.
Nolan became famous for his 1976 book, Jesus before Christianity, in which he presented an account of Jesus' radical involvement in the struggle for full humanity in the context of first-century Palestine: he "challenged the rich to identify in solidarity with the poor, a spirituality of solidarity that resonated with white Catholics seeking a new, progressive direction" (Egan 1999). The book was translated into nine languages, and a 15th anniversary edition appeared in the early 1990s.
Nolan published his second major work, God in South Africa in 1988. At one point during the writing process he 'went underground' to hide from the Security Forces during the State of Emergency in South Africa. God in South Africa is a primary example of contextual theology: written as a theology for that particular moment, without a claim to its possible relevance in other times and places. In 2006, Nolan published his Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom (Orbis Books).
Nolan is reportedly at work on another work with the working title Contemplation, Action, and the New Cosmology.
In 2003, the South African government awarded him the Order of Luthuli in silver, in recognition of "his life-long struggle dedication to the struggle for democracy, human rights and justice and for challenging the religious dogma including theological justification of apartheid".
On 15 November 2008, the Master of the Dominican Order, Fr Carlos Azpiroz Costa, has promoted Fr Albert Nolan OP as a Master of Sacred Theology in recognition of the significant contribution he has made to theological research and debate.
- Nolan, A 1976. Jesus before Christianity: The Gospel of Liberation. London: Darton, Longman and Todd. ISBN 0-232-51373-2. (Rev. ed. 1992) Also published by Orbis Books (USA).
- Nolan, A 1988. God in South Africa: The Challenge of the Gospel. Cape Town: David Philip; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Gweru: Mambo Press; London: CIIR. ISBN 0-86486-076-5, ISBN 1-85287-010-9, ISBN 1-85287-014-1, and ISBN 0-8028-0413-6.
- Nolan, A 2006. Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom. Orbis Books (USA). ISBN 978-1-57075-672-6.
- Denis, P 1998. The Dominican Friars in Southern Africa: A Social History, 1577-1990. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 90-04-11144-1.
- Egan, A 1999. Catholic intellectuals. In: Brain, J & Denis, P (eds). The Catholic Church in contemporary South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications. 314-348.
- Speckman, M T & Kaufmann, L T (eds). 2001. Towards an agenda for contextual theology: Essays in honour of Albert Nolan. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications.
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