The weird and wacky history of Confirmation, Part 1: When there was no Confirmation – the western Church before Nicaea

Pastor Surburg has started a series looking at the history of Confirmation in the church; the first part was posted on is blog here and duplicated below:

 

confirmation3In the popular imagination today, there are few things that are more “Lutheran” than the Rite of Confirmation.  Generations of Lutherans have donned a white gown, and in front of a church full of family and friends they have confessed the faith and vowed faithfulness in Confirmation. Then they have received the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time.

However, upon further reflection, it is remarkable that Confirmation exists at all – much less in the Lutheran Church.  The history of Confirmation is a weird and wacky story that twists and turns in unexpected ways.  In a series of posts I am going to look at the history of Confirmation in the western Church up to the Reformation, and then in the Lutheran Church up to our own day.  When we think about the status of Confirmation in our own pastoral practice, it is important to understand how Confirmation as it exists today in the Lutheran Church came into existence.   This information puts us in a better position to evaluate Confirmation itself.

The story of Confirmation begins in the rites that accompanied the administration of Holy Baptism in the early Church.  The Romans considered bathing to be one of the quintessential features of civilized “Roman” life. In fact, “the bathhouse was produced as a new cultural form in the cities of Italy in the second century BC and became the hallmark of Roman urbanism at locations across Italy and the western Empire until, by the second century AD, it was impossible to imagine that anyone in the Empire did not bathe in a bathhouse.” [endnote 1] Bathing was ubiquitous in the Roman world, and wherever there was bathing, people anointed themselves with olive oil.  Leonel Mitchell surveys the evidence and concludes that “to a Roman or Hellenistic Greek anointing would be associated with washing as naturally as we associate soap with water. When a Roman went to the bath he took a towel and oil.” [endnote 2]

The New Testament says that at Jesus’ baptism (Lk 3:21-22) he was anointed with the Holy Spirit (Lk 4:18; Act 10:38).  It also says that Christians have an anointing from the Holy One (ὑμεῖς χρῖσμα ἔχετε ἀπὸ τοῦ ἁγίου; 1 Jn 2:20) and that they have been sealed with the Spirit (Eph 1:13; see also 2 Cor 1:22).  In a letter filled with baptismal language 1 Pet 2:9 describes Christians as a royal priesthood – a description that calls to mind the fact that kings (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:12-13) and priests (Leviticus 8:12, 30) were anointed.  The cultural setting and language of Scripture made it almost inevitable that anointing with oil would be a part of the administration of Holy Baptism.  We cannot say how soon this began.  Regarding this first factor, Aidan Kavanagh has observed, “One can only note that more was involved in the bathing process then, and hence more was implied in the bathing metaphor when used by antique authors, than is the case today.” [endnote 3]  With the respect to the second he cogently observes that we must question, “whether it took communities prepared to be ritually literal about washing metaphors up to a century and a half to become similarly disposed regarding unction.” [endnote 4]

Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit works through baptism (Jn 3:3, 5; Tit 3:5-6; 1 Cor 6:11).  However, one biblical text held the early Church’s attention as she reflected upon baptism and the gift of the Spirit. In Acts 8:4-8 Philip goes to Samaria and proclaims the Gospel.  The chapter then goes on to say: “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:14-17 ESV).  The text highlights the unique circumstances within salvation history of the Gospel’s advance beyond the Jews to the Samaritans (see Acts 10:44-48 where again unusual circumstances related to baptism and the Spirit mark the Gospel’s advance to the Gentiles).  Through this action the apostles recognized the Samaritan mission as part the apostolic Church.  The laying on of hands by those authorized by God in order to give the Spirit would become the feature that strongly influenced the Church’s ongoing baptismal practice.

We lack explicit evidence about the ritual actions that accompanied the administration of baptism in the western Church prior to Tertullian (155- ca 220 A.D.), Cyprian (ca 200-258) and (if accepted as genuine) the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus.  However it is very likely that they arose in the first and second centuries.  In the judicious candor that typifies his scholarship, J.D.C. Fisher concludes: “For the moment it is sufficient to observe that there is no reason to suppose that at the time of writing these further baptismal ceremonies were recent innovations.  If they were established customs by the second decade of the third century, they must have had their origin back in the second century, although how far back it is difficult to prove.  But the clear evidence of these ceremonies in the early third century has to be set against the failure of the second century writers to supply evidence as unmistakable of their existence in the period between the end of the end of the apostolic age and the time of Tertullian and Hippolytus.” [endnote 5]

Kavanagh states the case in a stronger, but not unwarranted fashion: “This should alert one to the probability that when the New Testament texts refer, especially in passing, to ‘baptism’ they mean something ritually larger and increasingly more sophisticated and complex than the water bath alone.  If this is not presumed, then it becomes impossible to account for how rites particularly related to  the Spirit and in closer ritual contact with the water bath than proclamation prior to it, suddenly appear as though from nowhere during the second and third centuries.  Nor does it explain why these rites quickly become accepted as traditional in churches obsessed with fidelity to the gospel and apostolic tradition.” [endnote 6]

The administration of Holy Baptism in Tertullian’s North African setting involved baptism in water, anointing (On Baptism 7), signing with the cross (On the Resurrection of the Flesh 8), and imposition of the hand (On Baptism 8). [endnote 7]  Tertullian explained the anointing in relation to priesthood: “After that we come up from the washing and are anointed with the blessed unction, following that ancient practice by which, ever since Aaron was anointed by Moses, there was a custom of anointing them for priesthood with oil out of a horn” (On Baptism 7). [endnote 8]  This  explanation of anointing in relation to priesthood (cf. 1 Peter 2:9) will be one the dominant ones found in the western Church.

Tertullian is very explicit that the Spirit is given through the imposition of the hand in prayer: “Next follows the imposition of the hand in benediction, inviting and welcoming the Holy Spirit” (On Baptism 8). [endnote 9]  In a corresponding fashion he says that the Spirit is not given through the water: “Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit; but in the water, under (the witness of) the angel, we are cleansed, and prepared for the Holy Spirit” (On Baptism 6). [endnote 10]  At the same time, in his writings Tertullian can speak about how the soul is “renewed in its second birth by water and the power from above” (Treatise on the Soul 41). [endnote 11]

Lampe has described Tertullian’s theology as confused because of it seems to deny “that the Spirit is actually bestowed upon the believer at the moment of his regeneration.” [endnote 12]  However Fisher is most likely more accurate when he counters: “It may be freely granted that blessings which Tertullian ascribed to baptism and to the hand laying respectively are from the theological point of view in the last resort indivisible.  But in his day both acts formed part of a rite which was a single whole, in which baptism in water, unction, consignation and imposition of the hand followed one another without any appreciable interval of time between.” [endnote 13]  As he goes on to say, “In short, then, the evidence as a whole points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that in Tertullian’s view baptism by itself by the operation of the Holy Spirit conferred eternal salvation and remission of sins, while the subsequent hand-laying conveyed the gift of the Holy Spirit to the initiates … To say, however, that the convert received the Holy Spirit at the hand-laying after baptism does not carry with it the implication that he had been untouched by the Spirit up to that moment.  The baptism which he had received was not a mere water-baptism but a baptism of water and the Spirit.” [endnote 14]

Cyprian’s writings demonstrate a very similar ritual structure, a little later in North Africa, as was found in Tertullian: baptism in water, anointing, imposition of the hand, and (perhaps) signing with the cross.  Like Tertullian he attributed the gift of the Spirit to the imposition of the hand: “They who are baptized in the church are brought to the prelates of the church, and by our prayers and by the imposition of the hand obtain the Holy Spirit, and are perfected with the Lord’s seal [signaculo dominico]” (Letter 73 to Jubaianus, 9). [endnote 15] In this section of the letter, Cyprian is the first writer to cite Acts 8 as justification for this practice. [endnote 16]

Yet also like Tertullian, Cyprian clearly believed that the Spirit was active in the water of baptism as it gives forgiveness of sins and spiritual birth.  For example, he writes in Letter74.5, “Furthermore a person is not born again through the imposition of the hand when he receives the Holy Spirit, but in baptism so that having first been born he may receive the Spirit.” [endnote 17] And so Fisher is justified when he says, “In conclusion, then, Cyprian’s doctrine of initiation, virtually identical with that of Tertullian, requires a liturgical practice where baptism, anointing, consignation and hand-laying with prayer are seen to be an organic whole. There is no ground for disagreement as to the spiritual blessings conferred by the whole rite; the difficulty arises when the attempt, unavoidable in the circumstances of today in the West, is made to distribute the blessings among the particular moments in the rite.” [endnote 18]

Tertullian knew of infant baptism but argued that, baptism should be delayed because children were more likely to sin after baptism, and thus require the rigors of public penance and reconciliation to the Church (On Baptism, 18).  Cyprian, on the other hand, was a strong supporter of infant baptism (Letter 64).  Cyprian also provides evidence that children, and even infants, were receiving the Sacrament of the Altar (On the Lapsed 3.9, 25) and is the first witness that after baptism they received the Sacrament.

In To Quirinius 3.25 Cyprian writes, “In the Gospel according to John: Unless you have been reborn by water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. For what has been born of flesh is flesh, and what has been born of spirit is spirit. Similarly in another place: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.’” [endnote 19] For Cyprian the reception of the Holy Baptism and reception of the Sacrament of the Altar are linked with one another. He states, “The Holy Spirit is received through baptism, and therefore drinking the cup of the Lord is attained by the baptized and those who have received the Holy Spirit. . . . The cup of the Lord is always thirsted for and drunk in church” (Letter 63.8). [endnote 20]

Holeton has commented about Cyprian and infant communion:

Cyprian give us what appears to be an already developed theology of the practice as well as several illustrations of infant communion.  First, he bears witness to the coupling of John 3:5 (‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit …’) and John 6:53 (‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man…’) as a single logion in the traditio fidei, establishing what is necessary for participation in the Christian community. Infants are as capable of baptism as are adults and share equally in the divine gift given in baptism. Having thus been baptized in the Spirit the newborn drink thereon from the Lord’s cup, and are thus both ‘baptized and sanctified’ (‘baptizandum et santificandum’). [endnote 21]

From this period on, infant communion after baptism and anointing was a standard initiation pattern in Christianity for more than a thousand years.

In the past, the so-call Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus (ca. 215) has been cited as evidence for baptismal practice in Rome at the beginning of the third century.  There, after baptism the (21.18) the individual is anointed by the presbyter (21.19).  Next the bishop lays his hand on him and according to the oldest manuscript (Latin) prays, “Lord God, who have made them worthy to receive the forgiveness of sins through the laver of regeneration of the Holy Spirit, send on them your grace, that they may serve you according to your will” (21.21). [endnote 22]  The later Boharic, Arabic and Ethiopic manuscripts have “make them worthy to be filled with the/your Holy Spirit” instead of “send on them your grace.” [endnote 23]  Then the bishop anointsthe baptized (21.22) and signs them on the forehead (21.23). This double anointing, with the hand laying and second anointing done by the bishop, matches what will be found in Rome in a later period.

While the Apostolic Tradition has in the past been used as evidence for pre-Nicene baptismal practice in Rome, this now seems unlikely.  The attribution to Hippolytus is based on weak evidence and is in no way certain for a number of significant reasons. [endnote 24]  It seems more likely that the text is a conflation of several different traditions from a number of periods and that its final form probably reflects a fourth century setting. [endnote 25]  Since the Verona (Latin and earliest) manuscript dates to fifth century Italy, the text provides important information for understanding later practice in Italy.

I would like to make four observations about this pre-Nicene evidence.  The first is that we do not find the rite of Confirmation in this early period.  There is not yet, as the medieval Church came to understand it, a separate action by the bishop which bestowed the Spirit in order to provide some new or additional gift for someone who is already a Christian through baptism.   “Confirmation” exists in this period neither at the terminological or conceptual level. Instead, there is simply the single rite of Holy Baptism through which a Christian received rebirth and the gift of the Spirit.  The focus is Holy Baptism – nothing more and nothing less. Confirmation was not instituted by Christ like Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar and so we do not find the early Church administering it from the beginning.

Second, we see here the beginning of a trend that will run through the whole history of the early and medieval Church.  Acts 8 becomes the basis for the belief that the laying on of hands by a bishop (or presbyter in many cases) bestows the Holy Spirit in the rite of Holy Baptism.  As we have seen in Tertullian and Cyprian, this does not mean that the work of the Spirit giving rebirth has been absent in the water of baptism.  Instead, it indicates that the laying on of hands is part of the baptismal rite that bestows the Spirit in a unique way.

The descriptive account of what happened with the apostles Peter and John in Samaria becomes justification, authorization and prescription for those in the Office of the Holy Ministry to do the same.  The problem is that the text contains neither command nor the promise that this will be true for others.  While the Scriptures speak about the water of baptism and the command and promises attached to it, they never say anything in regard to the laying on of hands in baptism in order to give the Spirit.

Third, it must be conceded that while the exegetical basis for the claim about the hand laying is inadequate, the idea itself of the Spirit being given more than once or for more than one purpose is not contrary to Scripture.   A reading of John 20 and Acts 2 demonstrates that this is possible.  These two texts gave plausibility to a multistage reception of the Spirit in the rite of Holy Baptism.

Finally, while the evidence for infant communion in the first millennium of the Church is incontrovertible, that fact does not justify the practice.  Although is it possible to construct a general theological argument for infant communion based on the nature of the Means of Grace and of faith, such an attempt founders on 1 Cor 11:27-31.  We must acknowledge the unique character of the each of the Means of Grace as it is presented to us by Scripture.  The apostolic instruction that it is necessary for a believer to examine himself (1 Cor 11:28;δοκιμαζέτω δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἑαυτόν) and discern the body of Christ (11:29; μὴ διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα), namely to recognize what it is and what it does in the vertical and horizontal relationships created by the Sacrament (1 Cor 10:16-17), precludes infants from receiving the Sacrament.  The exegetical data permits no other answer and so this must guide our practice instead of theological extrapolations. [endnote 26]

The Lutheran Confessions lead us to the same conclusion.  Lutherans confess that we administer the Sacrament to those who know what it is and why they need it.  We do not give it to the person who “does not believe these words or doubts them” because in such a case he or she is “unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe” (SC VI.9-10). They say, “Now it is true, as we have said, that no one under any circumstances should be forced or compelled, lest we institute a new slaughter of souls” (LC VI.42).  Instead it is to be given to those who have “faith in these words: “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (SC VI.9-10).  Infants are incapable of doing this, and so they should not receive the Sacrament until they are able to do so. Holy Baptism is not the Sacrament of the Altar, and vice versa.  We cannot operate as if the requirements for the two sacraments are mutually interchangeable.

While infant communion is to be rejected, this does not mean that children are to be excluded from the Sacrament.  It is entirely commensurate with the Scriptures, the Confessions, and the practice of the Church – including the Lutheran Church – for children to receive the Sacrament of the Altar.  I will treat this point in more detail when we arrive at the Reformation period.

Next in the series:  The weird and wacky history of Confirmation: When there was no Confirmation in Rome

 

Endnotes —

[1] Ray Laurence, Simone Esmonde Cleary and Gareth Sears, The City in the Roman West c. 250 BC – c. AD 250 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011), 204.

[2] Leonel L. Mitchell, Baptismal Anointing (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1966) , 26.

[3] Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 28.

[4] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 28.

[5] J.D.C. Fisher Christian Initiation: Confirmation Then and Now (Chicago: HillenbrandBooks, 1978), 28.

[6] Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 26 (emphasis original).

[7] Fisher, Confirmation Then and Now, 33.

[8] E.C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy (rev. and ed. Maxwell E. Johnson; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 9 (hereafter DBL).

[9] DBL 9.

[10] Ante-Nicene Fathers 3.692 (hereafter ANF).

[11] ANF 3.221

[12] G.W.H. Lampe, The Seal of the Spirit: A Study in the Doctrine of Baptism and Confirmation in the New Testament and Fathers (2d ed.; London: SPCK), 161.

[13] Fisher, Confirmation Then and Now, 36.

[14] Fisher, Confirmation Then and Now, 38-39.

[15] DBL 13.

[16] Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (rev. and exp.; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007), 91.

[17] Fisher, Confirmation Then and Now, 41.

[18] Fisher, Confirmation Then and Now, 47.

[19] Paul Turner, Ages of Initiation: The First Two Christian Millenia (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), CD-ROM source excerpts, Ch2, 2. Baptism and Eucharist.

[20] Turner, Ages of Initiation, CD-ROM source excerpts, Ch2, 2. Baptism and Eucharist.

[21] David Holeton, Infant Communion – Then and Now (Bramcote/Nottingham: Grove Books, Ltd., 1981), 5.

[22] Paul E. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 118.

[23] Bradsahw, Johnson and Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition, 118.

[24] See the detailed discussion in Bradshaw, Johnson and Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition, 1-6. See also the summary of the weaknesses in Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 81-83.

[25] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation 101-110; Bradshaw, Johnson and Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition, 108-125.

[26] On the vocabulary and structure, see: Mark P. Surburg, “Structural and Lexical Features in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, “Concordia Journal 26 (2000): 200-217.  On the referent of “body” in 1 Cor 11:29, see: A. Andrew Das, “1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Revisited,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 62 (1998): 187-208, 197-208.  On the setting of the Corinthian Lord’s Supper, see: Mark P. Surburg, “The Situation at the Corinthian Lord’s Supper in Light of 1 Corinthians 11:21: A Reconsideration,” Concordia Journal 32 (2006): 17-37.  For a helpful discussion of the issues raised by this text, see: Jeffrey A. Gibbs, “An Exegetical Case for Close(d) Communion: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:17-34,” Concordia Journal 21 (1995): 148-163.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.

Comments

The weird and wacky history of Confirmation, Part 1: When there was no Confirmation – the western Church before Nicaea — 7 Comments

  1. It is amazing, and we should be thankful to God, that He has provided the Church, and particularly the Lutheran Church, with a variety of advances in theological instructions methods for congregational members, including catechism classes leading to the rite of confirmation, the use of a printing press for theological documents, instructional materials, and hymnals with hymns and liturgies printed in the vernacular.

    More recently there has been the implementation of Sunday Schools and Bible classes for additional opportunities in religious education. And today, the Lutheran Confessions and other important Lutheran documents, in various languages, including the original languages, are available to even the lowly laity through the internet.

    While some distributed educational material, even within the LCMS, has not always been properly reviewed for being doctrinally correct, the public availability of such materials usually will result in someone identifying Lutheran documents and articles with defective doctrinal content.

    For example, while the age at which catechesis is carried out may vary depending on the culture and individual intellectual abilities, the importance of catechesis prior to communion should not be denigrated even by subtle allusions in an article discussing the history of confirmation.

  2. this is a very good article and I agree with it – -including your arguments against infant communion. I do take issue with this particular argument:

    Instead it is to be given to those who have “faith in these words: “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (SC VI.9-10). Infants are incapable of doing this, and so they should not receive the Sacrament until they are able to do so. Holy Baptism is not the Sacrament of the Altar, and vice versa.

    Infantes are not incapable of having this faith. Indeed, we hold that infants are completely capable in having a saving faith in their Lord. There is no reason to suggest that they can not also have faith that words of institution and distribution are also true.

    The argument is a fallacy – but most importantly it is not necessary to resort to it in order to argue against infant communion and its introduction only works to undermine the foundation for faith prior to the age of accountability …

  3. In the 21st century, some LCMS pastors are
    delegating their duty of confirmation instruction
    to the laity. This is sad for many reasons, but
    mainly because we are no longer taking serious
    the instruction of our youth.

    No pastor should be too busy that he can not
    find the time to teach youth confirmation
    classes.

  4. @Rev.Dave Likeness #4

    Of course, Pastors have a duty to teach their entire flock including those of confirmation age. But we must always be mindful of who bears the ultimate responsibility for teaching the you. Each article of the Small Catechism starts with a pretty clear reminder:

    “I. The Ten Commandments

    As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.”

    II. The Creed

    As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.”

  5. I look forward to the next in the series.

    By the way how do you add a picture above ones name in the comment section?

    With football season starting we need to counteract the evil team of Northern Wisconsin with the team of Chicago, “The Bears.”

    This is not to be considered an ad hominem argument or trollish behavior. Just good old nature team rivalry brought on by seeing a Green Bay Logo!

  6. @Pastor Roepke #6
    By the way how do you add a picture above ones name in the comment section?

    The directions are in the para under the “captcha” block.
    See “this page” to see how.
    [First, have the picture you want in your files.]

    Are we going to have a whole collection of football logos? ;o

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