Born in 1909, he was one of five children of John and Ann Davidson Kelly; he was educated privately in a small school owned by his father at Bridge of Allan, near Stirling. Its commercial misfortunes left family circumstances somewhat straitened; Kelly therefore developed what became a lasting quality of self-reliance.
At 16, he went to Glasgow University. After he secured first class honours in Classics, a Ferguson scholarship took him to Queen's College, Oxford, where he not only won further first class degrees in Mods, Greats and Theology, but also was president of the Junior Common Room. At Queen's, the distinguished liturgical scholar E.C. Ratcliff was a profound influence. Kelly moved from Presbyterianism to the Church of England. Ministerial study at St Stephen's House led to ordination. After a brief curacy in Northampton, A.B. Emden in 1935 invited him to be chaplain of St Edmund Hall. Two years later, he became Emden's vice-principal.
Kelly thenceforth not only carried a formidable teaching burden in Theology and PPE, but in the middle years of the Second World War, when Emden commanded the University Naval Division, Kelly virtually ran the hall. This precluded his becoming a services chaplain. Nineteen thirty-seven also marked the beginning of the 20-year process by which the hall secured complete independence from Queen's. Emden wished independence to preserve its ancient aularian status (its origins go back to the 13th century), not to make it the youngest college. As vice-principal, Kelly already appreciated that only collegiate status could meet future needs; while loyal to Emden, he wisely ensured that the way to it remained open.
When ill-health enforced Emden's early retirement in 1951, all concerned acclaimed Kelly as his obvious successor. In 1958, he received from the Duke of Edinburgh the hall's charter of incorporation. His retirement in 1979 followed his having prepared the way for another major change, in the admission of women to the college. It was a step that he accepted, for he saw that the time had come.
Throughout the 28 years of his principalship, Kelly dedicated himself unstintingly to St Edmund Hall's well-being. Collegiate status and an expanding fellowship did, indeed, lighten administrative burdens. In mid- term he remarked that Emden left the principalship a job and a half, but that he had made it half a job. (He would not, perhaps, have said that by 1979.) Kelly's forte lay in his cultivation of the friendship of the undergraduates. A phenomenal memory for names and faces enabled him at all stages to know and to be known by virtually all of a numerically large student body. Few heads of colleges have excelled him in this respect.
Himself an outstanding performer on the tennis and squash courts, he was greatly concerned for the sporting life of the hall - partly thereby to win notice for the vitality of a new college, but partly, too, one suspects, in self-compensation for his own lack of schoolboy sporting opportunities and for his being denied war service. But he was also gratified by Aularians' conspicuous successes in the arts and in journalism; for himself, the cinema was a lifelong interest, along with painting (the hall acquired a remarkable collection of modern pictures during his time) and literature. He was formidably well-read.
Kelly's principalship was marked by a major expansion of the hitherto constricted buildings of the hall. The outstanding developments were the building, through the munificence of the Wolfson Foundation, of a new dining hall, and the conversion into an undergraduate library of the neighbouring church of St Peter-in-the-East which had become redundant.
In his use of time, Kelly was ordered and disciplined; he balanced a public image of gregariousness and even flamboyance with private austerity and scholarly withdrawal. Hence, his service to St Edmund Hall was punctuated by the regular publication of authoritative books. (Learned articles he disdained, and produced none.) The university lectureship in patristic studies which he held from 1948 until 1976 bore early fruit in his Early Christian Creeds (1950), a translation of Rufinus' commentary on the Apostles' Creed (1955), Early Christian Doctrines (1958), and The Athanasian Creed (1964). His attention moved towards biblical commentaries, with volumes on St Paul's Pastoral Epistles (1963) and the Epistles of St Peter and St Jude (1969).
The lucidity and judicious balance of Kelly's earlier books have commended them across the theological spectrum. In his commentaries, his support for traditional views about authorship and his expository profundity have been particularly welcomed by the conservatively minded.
In more recent years, Kelly's interest in and keen observation of people directed him to biography. Studies of Jerome (1975) and John Chrysostom (Golden Mouth, 1995) brought to life two ascetics and preachers of the early Church. The Oxford Dictionary of the Popes (1986) provided masterly epitomes of the popes from St Peter to John Paul II and has been translated into several languages. Kelly had subsequently been engaged upon a similar dictionary of the archbishops of Canterbury.
Unlike Emden, Kelly did not play a large part in university, as distinct from college, business. In 1966, the system of rotation by seniority amongst heads of houses brought him the vice-chancellorship, but an untimely attack of jaundice which he contracted in Turkey enforced his almost immediate retirement. Nor did he progress far towards the ecclesiastical promotion for which his learning and abilities might seem to have predestined him. When it was early offered to him, a recognition that he could not easily have worked with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, confirmed his commitment to the academic world. Under the more congenial Michael Ramsey, he was chairman from 1964 to 1968 of the Archbishop's Commission on Roman Catholic Relations, and in 1966 he accompanied Ramsey on his historic visit to Pope Paul VI. Early friendship with Bishop George Bell resulted in an association with Chichester Cathedral in which he held canonries from 1948 until 1993. He delighted in the round of cathedral worship.
Kelly's wide circle of friends will remember especially his mastery of the spoken word. He excelled as a lecturer and as a preacher, and no less in conversation at table and as an after-dinner speaker. One such speech at the Oxford Farming Conference which he based upon Virgil's Bucolics is a famous example of his ability to adapt his classical scholarship to a wider audience. His voice was distinctive. While at Queen's, he divested himself of a Glaswegian accent and of a severe stammer, but he retained a manner of speaking that lent itself to the mimicry in which undergraduates, in particular, delight. He was most fully himself when he was in their company in the front quadrangle of St Edmund Hall. But to whomever he was speaking, and whether the subject was serious or frivolous, the adjective that best describes Kelly's impact is that it was life-enhancing.
Kelly never married, but no picture of him would be true to life that did not notice the abiding place in his affections of his brothers and sisters, and especially of his nephews and their families. In this sense, he was a family man.
John Norman Davidson Kelly, theologian: born Bridge of Allan 13 April 1909; ordained deacon 1934, priest 1935; Chaplain, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1935-37, Vice-Principal 1937-51, Principal 1951-79, Honorary Fellow 1979- 97, Dean of Degrees 1982-89; Speaker's Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Oxford University 1945-48, Lecturer in Patristic Studies 1948-76; Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1964-66, 1972-79, Vice-Chancellor 1966; Canon, Chichester Cathedral 1949- 93; DD Oxon 1951; Chairman, Archbishop's Commission on Roman Catholic Relations 1964-68; FBA 1965; died Oxford 31 March 1997.