Emily Fisher Gray on Luther’s 95 Theses
Date: August 20th, 2017

On October 31, 2017, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous “95 Theses,” a list of various complaints and debating points about indulgences and the authority of the Vatican.  No series on the Protestant Reformation would be complete without an examination of this momentous document.  To dig into the themes of liberty and authority contained therein, and set the document in its historical context, we invite Prof. Emily Fisher Gray, an associate professo9r of history at Norwich University (Vermont).  We start off chatting about plans to celebrate the quincentennial of the Reformation in a few months, and Prof. Gray informs us that some Europeans are gearing up for the event with a bus tour around Germany, collecting additional “theses” and calls for reform that they intend to present in Wittenberg at the end of October.  We then move on to discuss Emily’s interest in the Reformation before setting up the “95 Theses” in their historical context.  Dr. Gray notes that Martin Luther was not the first person to raise concerns about how the authority of the Church was being exercised.  We discuss some earlier “proto-Protestants” such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, John of Paris, the Drummer of Niklashausen, and Savanarola.  None of these authors caught fire the way Luther’s writings did (although Hus and Savanarola did catch fire another way).  Emily explains this might be due to a number of factors such as the backwater location of Wittenberg combined with the availability of the printing press.  Luther never likely intended or thought his challenges to the Church would be spread as far and wide as they were, but “go viral” they did (possibly making Luther the first “social media superstar”).  Prof. Gray leads us through a number of the themes of the “95 Theses,” obviously paying some attention to Luther’s critique of indulgences and the doctrine of purgatory, but also several of the theses that dealt with the proper role of clerical authority.  She even reads a couple of these theses to us, emphasizing how “punchy” Luther’s writing could be.  Emily further points out that Luther was no fan of capitalism, or at least the financial classes, as he had harsh words not only for the “pardon merchants” (as he called the sellers of indulgences), but the banking infrastructure of Europe at the time as well.  We follow through on some of Luther’s subsequent writings where he developed themes of liberty and authority, and trace this to the immediate consequences of “95 Theses” in the form of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524.  Luther himself was concerned by the serfs taking his words as a means to rebel against feudal authority and wrote harshly in response in his delightfully titled “Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes.”  This allows us to delve into whether Luther’s thoughts inspired a change in the vision of secular authority within European society, and to what extent his writings inspired the continent’s secularization and the Enlightenment to come much later.  Throughout the interview, Emily reminds us that Luther’s personality and rhetorical style was one of a brash populist, and he wasn’t afraid of telling fart jokes amongst his intellectual peers.  We finish with Prof. Gray’s thoughts on whether or not the Reformation needed Luther.  She argues that the need for reform was bubbling under the surface in Europe at the time, and had it not been Luther it would have likely been somebody else who took up the mantle of reform.  Emily also reflects upon what she has learned throughout the course of her studies.  Her most prominent realization was that when people are left to their own devices, they are amazingly good at mitigating conflict and learning to live with one another.  Recorded: August 2, 2017.


Prof. Emily Fisher Gray’s convocation address at Norwich University.

The 95 Theses,” by Martin Luther.

Dictatus Papae, by Pope Gregory VII.

Unam Sanctam, by Pope Boniface VIII.

To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” by Martin Luther.

The Freedom of a Christian,” by Martin Luther.

Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes,” by Martin Luther.

Martin Luther Insult Generator (mentioned on podcast).


The Protestant Reformation Series (set of podcasts).

Rob Sorenson on Martin Luther’s Life.

Steven Pfaff on the World of 1517.

Marion Goldman on Martin Luther and Spiritual Virtuosity.

Steven Pfaff on the Protestant Reformation

Oliver Crisp on Calvin and Reformed Theology

Rod Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part II

3 Responses to “Emily Fisher Gray on Luther’s 95 Theses”

  1. Mike M. says:

    From the Luther insult generator: “You are the ultimate scourges of the world, the Antichrist together with your sophists and bishops.”

    He must have been talking about a different podcast because this one was terrific. Thanks Emily and Tony.

Leave a Reply

Listen or Download This Episode
Search The Podcast
To search the podcast, type a term and click the Search button.

Connect With Us