Saturday, July 23, 2022

Mark's thoughts: Martin Chemnitz's pious fantasy about the history of Confirmation

While Martin Bucer may be called the father of Lutheran confirmation because he was the first to provide a rite of confirmation for a Lutheran church, Martin Chemnitz was in fact the most important figure in the history Lutheran confirmation.  This is true for two reasons.  First, in his Examination of the Council of Trent, Chemnitz “demonstrated” that confirmation was in fact a true and apostolic practice that should be retained for the good of the Church, once false accretions were eliminated. Second, he described in the Examination of the Council of Trent what an evangelical confirmation was, and then along with Jacob Andraeae he produced a rite of confirmation in the Braunschweig-Wolfenb├╝ttel Church Order of 1569 which is “the most complete confirmation rite that has come down to us from the sixteenth century.”[1] Chemnitz’s authority among Lutherans secured confirmation’s position moving forward.


Chemnitz wrote Part II of the Examination, which treats confirmation, in 1566.[2]  In his consideration, Chemnitz hammers home the point that what is attributed to confirmation minimizes baptism.[3] As expected, he emphasizes that confirmation lacks divine command and promise.[4]  He criticizes the Roman practice, because while Scripture and church fathers speak about laying on of hands, the Romans define the material of confirmation to be chrism.[5]  He is aware that church fathers such as Tertullian and Cyprian said the Spirit is given in baptism through hand laying.  In general, he deals with this and other patristic witnesses that ascribe the giving of the Spirit to hand laying or anointing by noting that Scripture does not teach this and that the rule of Augustine should be observed, namely: “The authority of the statements of the fathers ought to be not greater than the quality of the arguments which they bring forward from the canonical Scriptures.”[6] Specifically he maintains that Tertullian and Cyprian said this because of Montanus’ influence.[7]


Chemnitz is well aware that originally, the rite of baptism consisted of a continuous ceremony that included hand laying and anointing.[8]  He argues: “Afterward, in order that the number of sacraments might be increased, they separated it from the act of Baptism. And in order that a separate sacrament might be made of it, they willed that some measure of time should lie between them.”[9]  However, the separation was never an intentional act, but was instead an accident of practice that then produced a theology to explain it. In addition, church leaders repeatedly admonished that there should be as little delay as possible (see pages 3-10 of “The Rite of Confirmation: Teaching Lutherans to be Lutheran for Life?”).[10]  


Chemnitz is convinced that there was originally a practice that we can identify as “confirmation,” and that over time “traditions that are useless, superstitious, and in conflict with Scripture” were added.[11]  He states that originally, when those who had been baptized as infants “arrived at the years of discretion” (ad annos discretionis), they were instructed, and when they displayed comprehension, they were brought to the bishop and the church for examination, exhortation, and public prayer accompanied by the laying on of hands.[12]


Yet the evidence Chemnitz cites in support of this claim does not withstand scrutiny.  He points to the examination of doctrine and laying on of hands in Acts 19:1-7, but this hardly provides a typical example of church practice.[13]  He cites texts about the church’s exhortation to persevere in true doctrine (Acts 14:22; 15:30-32; 18:11), but these are nothing more than general statements. They do not in any way indicate the practice just described.[14] Chemnitz refers to the examination and profession of faith described in Canon 7 of the Council of Laodicea and Canon 8 of the Council of Arles, but he himself has just noted earlier that these describe the process used in the reception of heretics and schismatics and not that of baptized Christians.[15]


He cites the Council of Orleans and its reference to a “ripe age” (perfectatem aetatem) to support the idea that confirmands were examined; however, earlier he used the text of the Council to condemn confirmation since it says that no one will be a Christian unless he had been anointed in confirmation by the bishop. More importantly, the text that refers to a “ripe age” says nothing about examination.[16] Finally he cites Pseudo-Dionysius 7:11 to support his argument, but this says nothing more than that baptized children can and should receive instruction.


Because a church practice called “confirmation” existed at the start of the sixteenth century that was plagued with theological problems, Chemnitz assumes that this practice must have been present in a pure form at the beginning of the of the Church.  Nothing better illustrates this than the way that Chemnitz deals with Jerome, Against the Luciferians, 9, which states: “I do not deny that it is the practice of the Churches in the case of those who living far from the greater towns have been baptized by presbyters and deacons, for the bishop to visit them, and by the laying on of hands to invoke the Holy Ghost upon them.”[17] Chemnitz comments on this:

It was without a doubt a good and useful custom for retaining and preserving purity of doctrine and faith that the bishop himself interrogated and examined those who had been baptized by others concerning the doctrine and faith, and when he understood that they believed rightly and had been baptized legitimately, he confirmed them with the Word, and with the laying on of hands invoked the Holy Spirit on them in order that they might persevere in the faith.”[18]
Yet none of this is stated by Jerome (the entire point is about bishops giving the Spirit).  This is all a product of Chemnitz’s own mind about “what must have happened.”

Chemnitz’s version of “confirmation” is a pious fantasy that never existed. He is by no means alone in this view among sixteenth century writers (Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon had similar positions). However, Chemnitz's authority carried great weight among Lutherans. It is this deeply flawed account of the “true history” of confirmation that legitimized it for Lutherans in the generations to come.


This is an excerpt from the paper, “The Rite of Confirmation: Teaching Lutherans to be Lutheran for Life?” that considers the history and practice of confirmation in the Lutheran church.


[1] Frank W. Kloss, Confirmation and First Communion: A Study Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 65.

[2] Paul Turner, The Meaning and Practice of Confirmation: Perspectives from a Sixteenth-Century Controversy (New York: Peter Lang, 1987), 57, nt. 68.

[3] Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II (tr. Fred Kramer; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978), 183, 185, 196.

[4] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 187, 194.

[5] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 205-206.

[6] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 205.

[7] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 199.  This is a very weak argument, since “On Baptism” derives from Tertullian’s pre-Montanist stage, and the accusation of Cyprian with Montanism is unique to Chemnitz.  Bellarmine rightly critiques Chemnitz on this point (Turner, The Meaning and Practice of Confirmation, 248).

[8] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 206, 208.  Chemnitz does not believe that these were all objectionable because, “the efficacy of Baptism is signed and proclaimed by these superadded signs” (200).

[9] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 207.

[11] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 212.

[12] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 212. Latin text cited from Martin Chemnitz, Examen Concilii Tridentini (ed. Preuss; Berlin: Gust. Schlawitz, 1861), 297 (hereafter referred to as Preuss).

[13] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 212-213

[14] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 213.

[15] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 213; see 208.

[16] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 219; Preuss 297. See, Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 184.  The text itself is not from the Council of Orleans as cited by Gratian. Instead: “The first half of this canon appears in the Carolingian Herardi Turonensis Capitula (858) as cap. 75. The end of the canon, which makes confirmation constitutive of being a Christian, is added several centuries later in Ivonis Carnontensis Decretum (1117), 1:254, where the canon is attributed to the Council of Orleans” (Turner, The Meaning and Practice of Confirmation, 262-263). Turner notes that Chemnitz, Calvin, and Bellarmine all refer to it as cited by Gratian (263).

[17] NPNF2, 6:324; A Select Library of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series 2. ed. Philip Shaff; 14 vols. New York: The Christian Literature Series, 1890-99; repr, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1952, 1961.

[18] Examination of the Council of Trent: Part II, 210.

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