John Nolan's namesakes include Albert Nolan.
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. 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.