Saturday, August 17, 2013

Mark's thoughts: The weird and wacky history of Confirmation, Part 1- The western Church before Nicaea

(St. Cyprian)

In 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.  As we think about the status of Confirmation in our own pastoral practice, it is important to understand how Confirmation in its present form in the Lutheran Church came into existence.   This information puts us in a better position to evaluate Confirmation itself.

I. Anointing and laying on of hands
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.”[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.”[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.”[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.”[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.[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.[6]

II. Tertullian
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).[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).[8]  This  explanation of anointing in relation to priesthood (cf. 1 Peter 2:9) will be one of 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).[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).[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).[11] 

Lampe has described Tertullian’s theology as confused because it seems to deny “that the Spirit is actually bestowed upon the believer at the moment of his regeneration.”[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.”[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.”[14]

III. Cyprian
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).[15] In this section of the letter, Cyprian is the first writer to cite Acts 8 as justification for this practice.[16]

Yet also like Tertullian, Cyprian clearly believed that the Spirit was active in the water of baptism as he gives forgiveness of sins and spiritual birth.  For example, he writes in Letter 74.5, “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.”[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.”[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 (Epistle 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 they received the Sacrament after baptism.  Holeton has commented:

Cyprian gives 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’).[19]

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

IV. Apostolic Tradition
In the past, the so-called 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).[20]  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.”[21]  Then the bishop anoints the 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 large number of reasons.[22]  It seems more likely that the text is a conflation of several different traditions from a number of periods and that its final form reflects a fourth century setting.[23]  Since the Verona (Latin and earliest) manuscript dates to fifth century Italy, the text provides important information for understanding later practice in Italy.

V. Observations
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.  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.

Finally, while the evidence for infant communion in the first millennium of the Church is incontrovertible, that fact does not justify the practice.  While is it possible to construct a theological argument 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) – to recognize what it is and what it does in the vertical and horizontal relationships created by the Sacrament (1 Cor 10:16-17) – preclude infants from receiving the Sacrament.  The exegetical data permits no other answer.[24] 


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 those who  "does not believe these words or doubt them" because in such a case they are "unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe" (SC VI.9-10). They say that, "No one should by any means be forced or compelled to go to the Sacrament” but instead those who have faith in these words “given and shed for you for the fortgiveness 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 this series: The weird and wacky history of Confirmation, Part 2 - Rome before Confirmation

[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] David Holeton, Infant Communion - Then and Now (Bramcote/Nottingham: Grove Books, Ltd., 1981), 5 (cited by Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation, 93).
[20] Paul E. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 118.
[21] Bradsahw, Johnson and Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition, 118.
[22] Bradshaw, Johnson and Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition, 1-6. See 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.
[23] Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation 101-110; Bradshaw, Johnson and Phillips, The Apostolic Tradition, 108-125.
[24] 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.

1 comment:

  1. "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) – to recognize what it is and what it does in the vertical and horizontal relationships created by the Sacrament (1 Cor 10:16-17) – preclude infants from receiving the Sacrament. The exegetical data permits no other answer"... The same can be said about an infants capacity to believe as well. Everywhere in scripture faith is viewed as the pre-requisite for baptism.