I have been at one time among those who view theologians as those egg-headed liberals who talk about higher criticism and other esoteric subjects designed to subvert the real word of God. At one time, theologians were also distinguished by the tendency to wax eloquent on the subject of Greek verb tenses and subtle shades of meaning lost in the translation process, but today even run of the mill preachers spout Greek and quote Strong’s as second only to the Bible itself.
So now that the lines between a preacher and a professional theologian have been blurred, what if anything distinguishes these two groups anymore? In general, I perceive of a preacher as one who operates verbally in connection with a particular group or congregation, perhaps as a part of larger denominational group. Preachers are hired to maintain and propagate the ancient doctrines, not to analyze them. Theologians on the other hand tend to be more written communicators and more likely to be in search of a new, deeper meaning behind the scriptures than the average preacher would be. Preachers after all are hired by groups with a previous doctrinal history which many congregants view as inviolate. Change and growth are not encouraged or even tolerated in this atmosphere. Theologians however are often associated with universities or at least large denominational groups, thus enjoying the emphasis on intellectual freedom generally associated with the university environment.
Educational background also separates preachers and theologians into different groups. Many preachers have formal seminary training and many others are strictly self-taught, which may mean their instruction is limited to what they learned from earlier preachers. Theologians on the other hand generally carry university degrees which include studies that address broader issues, like church history and how we came to receive the Bible in its current form. These broader studies incorporate the canonization process, the background behind various creedal statements and theological positions, the influence of other religions and philosophies on the evolution of various aspects of accepted Christian theology, the process by which the scriptures were transmitted from the original manuscripts and how they were translated into the various languages, the history of the institutional church came to be and its relationship to the secular government in every age, and the various church schisms and the associated issues and the resulting theological changes. Now I am sure that many seminary trained preachers have a working knowledge of many of these issues also, but the average seminary is designed to train people in the theology of the past, not to seek a new, more thoughtful paradigm. Those preachers who lack any formal training are much less likely to be familiar with these broader issues behind Christianity as we know it.
One aspect of Christianity which is particularly significant in the frequent picture of theologians as “over educated subversionists” is the emphasis on faith. In the minds of most, the opposite of faith is doubt. Anything then that tends to raise questions will cause doubts which are evidence of a lack of required faith. This line of reasoning leads to the very anti-intellectualism which we see played out in this prevailing dim view in many fundamentalist churches of “theologians”. Preachers are good because they promote the true faith; theologians are bad because they raise doubts about that faith and complicate the lives of preachers. As part of this aversion to an intellectual approach to Christianity is a reluctance to read or allow others to read anything of a religious nature besides the Bible. Books dealing with any of the broader issues noted above are to be avoided.
One can readily see that a more intimate knowledge of the evolution of “Christianity” as would be provided by the broader studies of the theologian would present many direct challenges to the idea that the prevalent theological understanding of many church groups is absolutely unquestionable. The complexities inherent in the various processes by which Christianity came to be where it is today would invariably produce a multitude of questions about the validity of those processes and the resulting understanding. The history of how we got to where we are is not at all reassuring of the sanctity of dogmatic doctrinal positions which are so sacred to most church groups.
Preachers and theologians alike carry personal biases which influence their opinions of the Bible. The real difference between the two groups, in my mind, is the potential for seeing something new in that Bible. Preachers are disinclined by training and church politics to view change as bad. Theologians on the other hand, being academics for the most part, are imbued with the university bred notion that change is progress.