Confirmation

Chris Jones supplied some comments to my post on age of admission to Communion, which he has now expanded into that most rare and welcome of treasures (and no, I’m not being sarcastic), a post on his own blog in which he looks at Lutheran theology and practice relating to confirmation and communion. Not that there is a great deal of connection between Lutheran theology and practice on these issues, as Chris persuasively argues.

First, Chris reminds us of the background to the western practice of confirmation. Originally, “baptism, confirmation, and first communion were always done together, in a single rite of Christian initiation”, by the bishop for each city. Later, as the church grew, this ministry was delegated to presbyters within each congregation. However, the western and eastern churches followed different approaches to this:

In the East, baptism, confirmation, and the eucharist were all delegated to the presbyter; but in the West, only baptism and the eucharist were delegated, while confirmation continued to be reserved to the bishop.

As Chris continues, “From this decision flowed all of the confusion in the West over confirmation and first communion”, as baptism and confirmation came to be regarded as separate practices, not merely practically but theologically. The result of this was that:

[Baptism] then came to be regarded as somehow incomplete, as not fully incorporating a person into the Church. For if there is a later, separate rite bestowing something that a person that he did not receive in baptism, then baptism itself must be somehow lacking.

By the time of the Reformation, “rite of confirmation … had lost its integral connection with baptism”, with confirmation being regarded as the rite by which the gift of the Holy Spirit was bestowed on believers. By contrast, the Reformers – while retaining the practice of confirmation – insisted that baptism effected both incorporation into Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit:

In our Lutheran theology, baptism is understood as complete initiation into the Church and into Christ, bestowing both union with Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The only difference between baptism as understood in the Lutheran Church and baptism/confirmation as practiced in the early Church is that we don’t have a particular ceremonial expression of the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the theology, the intent, and the effect are the same.

So where does this leave the Lutheran practice of confirmation? Chris’s view is that keeping confirmation separate from baptism was “historically and liturgically incorrect”, and that “the truly right thing to do would have been to restore the unity of baptism and confirmation as one rite”. In any event:

Given this history, and given the Lutheran theology about what happens in baptism, it is clear that whatever confirmation is in the Lutheran Church, it is not the same thing that was called “confirmation” in the early Church. It does not have the same theological basis, the same intent, nor the same sacramental effect. It just happens to have the same name.

As a result, “there is no doubt that ‘Lutheran confirmation’ is a ceremony of human invention. We have never claimed otherwise.”

The application of this to the question of admission to communion is then clear:

So what kind of sense does it make to set up a humanly-devised ceremony as a barrier to the sacrament by which our Lord delivers the forgiveness of sins and the life of the Kingdom to His people?

Which is what I was driving at with my earlier statement that “the Lord’s Supper is in the Bible, and confirmation … ain’t”.

(Chris, in his comments on my previous post, questioned whether that last statement was strictly correct. I’m unpersuaded, but in any event my statement was more descriptive of what led me personally to start receiving communion before I was confirmed [as an Anglican] following my return to the faith in 1994, rather than a considered theological assertion.)

This brings us on to the question of the appropriate age for admission to the Lord’s Table, which I’ll look at in my next post.

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