Sunday, June 18, 2017

Mark's thoughts: "Confirmation" - What do you mean?

On one occasion when I had written a post about Confirmation, I received quite a surprise.  The post had focused upon how Confirmation has, in a number of ways, been a negative influence in the life of the Lutheran church.  In response, a member of my extended family wrote a comment in which she objected that Confirmation had instead been incredibly important in her life of faith as a Lutheran.  When I asked why this was so, she went on to explain how in the time with her pastor she had learned about the content of the faith she now confesses.  At that moment, I realized that even though we were using same word (“Confirmation”) we were actually talking about two completely different things. And this experience illustrates why Confirmation can be such a difficult topic to discuss.

The word Confirmation is polyvalent – depending on context the word can have multiple referents. Therefore the same word can be used to talk about different things.  It is commonly used in three different ways. First, Confirmation can refer to a rite that is used in church – both the text and the ceremonial.  Second, Confirmation can refer to a theological belief. Finally, Confirmation can refer to a process by which the faith is taught (catechesis).

Confirmation can refer to a rite.  In the seventh and eighth centuries, what was to become known as Confirmation took the form of the following rite in the Old Gelasian Sacramentary which was performed by the bishop after baptism (immediately after baptism or more often, at a later time) in parts of Italy and Gaul:

Then the sevenfold Spirit is given to them by the bishop.  To seal them [ad consignandum], he lays his hand upon  them with these words:
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has made your servants to be regenerated of water and the Holy Spirit, and has given them remission of all their sins, Lord, send upon them your Holy Spirit the Paraclete, and give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and godliness, and fill them with the spirit of fear of God, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ with whom you live and reign ever God with the Holy Spirit, throughout all ages of ages. Amen.

Then he signs them on the forehead with chrism saying:
The sign of Christ unto life eternal.

When Confirmation had officially been split off as a separate rite it was included in the pontifical – the book that contained rites performed by the bishop.  In the Roman Pontifical of the Twelfth Century the words took on the form that became standard in the pre-Reformation western Church: “I sign you with the sign of the cross and I confirm you with the chrism of salvation.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

In the LCMS today, Confirmation means this rite:

The catechumens kneel to receive the confirmation blessing. The pastor places his hands on the head of each catechumen and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead while saying:
     Name    , the almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to life ╬ everlasting. ( Lutheran Service Book, pg. 273)

When used in the second way, Confirmation refers to a theological belief.  After a long development, in the medieval period Confirmation meant the following:

And although a simple priest has the power in regard to other anointings only a bishop can confer this sacrament, because according to the apostles, whose place the bishops hold, we read that through the imposition of hands they conferred the Holy Spirit, just as the lesson of the Acts of the Apostles reveals: "Now, when the apostles, who were in Jerusalem, had heard that the Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Who, when they were come, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Ghost. For He was not as yet come upon any of them: but they were only baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands upon them; and they received the Holy Ghost" [Acts 8:14 ff.]. But in the Church confirmation is given in place of this imposition of hands. Nevertheless we read that at one time, by dispensation of the Apostolic See for a reasonable and urgent cause, a simple priest administered this sacrament of confirmation after the chrism had been prepared by the bishop. The effect of this sacrament, because in it the Holy Spirit is given for strength, was thus given to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, so that the Christian might boldly confess the name of Christ. The one to be confirmed, therefore, must be anointed on the forehead, which is the seat of reverence, so that he may not be ashamed to confess the name of Christ and especially His Cross, which is indeed a "stumbling block to the Jews and unto the Gentiles foolishness" [cf.1 Cor. 1:23] according to the Apostle; for which reason one is signed with the sign of the Cross (Council of Florence 1438-1435).

In our day in the LCMS, Confirmation means this:

306. What is confirmation? Confirmation is a public rite of the church preceded by a period of instruction designed to help baptized Christians identify with the life and the mission of the Christian community. Note: Prior to admission to the Lord’s Supper, it is necessary to be instructed in the Christian faith (1 Cor. 11:28). The rite of confirmation provides an opportunity for the individual Christian, relying on God’s promises given in Holy Baptism, to make a personal public confession of the faith and a lifelong pledge of fidelity to Christ (Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation [1991], pg. 245).

When used in the third way, Confirmation refers to the process by which the faith is taught (catechesis). So in my experience growing up, the text of the Small Catechism was never seen or heard outside of “Confirmation class.”  Confirmation class took place place during seventh and eighth grade in a class room setting.  The “Small Catechism” meant the entire synodical Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation which was the text used. When I had finished Confirmation class I was confirmed and received the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time at the service.

When used in this way, for my own children it now means that the text of the Catechism (the Six Chief Parts) is distinguished from the Small Catechism (and they never see a copy of the synodical Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation).  Along with the whole congregation they speak a question and answer from the Small Catechism before the service every Sunday.  A banner hanging at the front of the nave always says what part of the Catechism we are looking at.  They attended Learn by Heart for a year with their mom where catechesis focused on the Small Catechism took place in the setting of the "Service of Prayer and Preaching" (Lutheran Service Book, pg. 260). This catechesis took occurred through instruction by the pastor and by singing catechetical hymns like LSB #581 “These Are the Holy Ten Commands” and LSB #766 “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above.”  They also reviewed the content of the Small Catechism at home with their parents.  This led to reception of the Sacrament prior to Confirmation using the rite of “First Communion Prior to Confirmation” (Lutheran Service Book Agenda, pg. 25).  This year in seventh grade, my twins will begin Catechesis in which one year they will study the doctrinal content of the Small Catechism in more depth using materials I have written.  In the other year they will do Biblical Readings that will take them through the salvation history of Scripture while using the Scripture texts to teach the content of the Small Catechism as it appears.  During both years they will again attend Learn by Heart with their mom and little brother (who will be preparing for First Communion prior to Confirmation).  

Now certainly these different uses of the word are also interrelated.  The theological belief explains what happens in the rite – what it is and does.  Sometimes the rite creates theological belief. Quite often in pre-Reformation history this happened as theologians tried to explain changes in the rite or the way it was done.  The process of teaching the faith often includes the rite (usually as a terminal event).  Theological belief changes and shapes the rite. Theological belief changes and shapes the practice.  These last two have been very common in the Lutheran  experience due to Pietism and Rationalism.

It is important that we clearly designate how we are using the word Confirmation, and recognize how others are using it, if we are to have productive discussions about this topic and not talk past each other.  So for example, while I am very skeptical about the value of Confirmation as a rite, I also firmly believe in Catechesis that it is based on the Catechism and Small Catechism, takes place in the setting of worship and in the classroom, involves parents, includes First Communion prior to Confirmation and seeks to use the text of the Small Catechism in many settings of congregational life.  This is something that has commonly been referred to as "Confirmation."

In order to avoid confusion I suggest that we refer to the first meaning listed above (the rite) as "Confirmation".  The second one (theological belief) can be called "theology of Confirmation." The third (process by which the faith is taught) can be called "Catechesis." 



  1. Perhaps this is slightly off topic, but what I'm struggling with is the meaning of confirmation when it is separated from admission to the Lord's Supper. Leaving aside the arguments in favor of and against separating the two, what is the purpose, meaning, and theology of the rite of confirmation if the individual has already been examined and admitted to the Sacrament?

    1. I think the best one can do is ground it in the baptismal mandate of Mt 28:19-20 to make disciples by 1) baptizing 2) teaching. They have been baptized and taught in a way that reflects the understanding we want members to have in the Church. Confirmation then confirms this fact.

  2. Pastor Surburg, have you considered writing a book on this topic for Concordia Publishing House?

  3. Today I learned a new word: "polyvalent"

    Thank you.