The Origins of Confirmation
It is difficult to track the historical use of Confirmation as a rite in the church, but it is typically agreed that we first find its use during the mid-fifth century. During this time, “confirmation” as a word had gained technical use in the church. However, even before this common use of the word arose, the practice of Confirmation was already in use. In our current tradition, we baptise our infants, they undergo catechetical instruction usually between 5th and 8th grade, they’re confirmed, then they receive the Lord’s Supper for the first time.
However, before the 5th century, “Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist formed one whole, constituting the introduction of the new Christian into the Church” (Boyle, 124). In between Baptism and the Eucharist, Baptism would take place with the anointing of oil in which one was essentially confirmed with the sealing of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, we no longer do this today. So, how did this change? What separated Baptism, anointing/confirmation, and the Eucharist from one another? The change came about not from theological reasons, but practical reasons. The church in the East still retain the three together. In the Easter tradition, the local presbyter (priest) always applies the oil for Confirmation. However, by the 5th century, the Western church was already distinguishing between presbyter and bishop. Only the bishop could do the laying on of hands and anointing in Confirmation and ordination.
For this reason, the anointing/confirmation was often delayed since the bishop cannot be present for every Confirmation rite in the parishes. Thus, the infants would be baptised, their Confirmation would be postponed to another date when the bishop was back in town, and then they would receive the Eucharist from the local presbyter. It is this separation of events “that ultimately paved the way for confirmation” up to the 16th century and as we practise it today (Boyle, 130).
The Development of Confirmation
In the 16th century, Confirmation was still understood “as the anointing or besmearing with the consecrated chrism [oil]… not in the act of Baptism itself but later in a special sacrament by means of the form or figure of the cross” (Boyle, 131). So, the Western practice of Confirmation taking place after Baptism and performed by the bishop was still pervasive into the 16th century in the Roman Church.
However, as the Lutheran reformer Martin Chemnitz notes, “They [Rome] suppose the sacrament of confirmation to be more excellent, worthier, and greater, so that it is to be venerated and held in greater reverence (for these are their own words) than Baptism itself” (Boyle, 131). Rome believed a person did not receive the Holy Spirit until the laying on of hands by the bishop in the “sacrament” of Confirmation occurred.
As we know, Martin Luther did not find this acceptable. He would call it “monkey business,” “fanciful deception,” or “mumbo-jumbo.” However, he would also “permit confirmation as long as it is understood that God knows nothing of it, and has said nothing about it, and that what the bishop claims for it is untrue” (Boyle, 132-133). In other words, Luther would only accept Confirmation as long as it was recognised that everything the bishop says of it is untrue (being a sacrament for the reception of the Holy Spirit) and as long as we recognise it is an adiaphoron, that is, a thing Scripture neither forbids nor commands.
Indeed, our Confessions do not prohibit the use of Confirmation as a rite, “Confirmation and extreme unction are rites inherited from the Fathers, which even the church does not require as necessary to salvation, since they lack the command of God. Hence it is useful to distinguish these rites from the previous ones [Baptism and Eucharist], which have the expressed command of God and a clear promise of grace” (Ap XIII, 6).
The Lutheran Reformers saw the Roman understanding of Confirmation as an attack against Baptism. At the same time, Luther saw the use for pastors “[investigating] the faith from children” to see “if it be good and sincere” and to even “impose hands and confirm” (Boyle, 133-134), insofar as it is understood as an adiaphoron for Christian discipline and not a sacrament. For Luther, he had minimal interest in Confirmation as a rite (in fact, he never composed a rite of confirmation; Boyle, 134), but he did have great interest in catechesis.
The catechism also has a long history of origins and development. A catechism “[gathers] the fundamental components of Scripture that go to the heart of defining what it means to be a Christian” (Arand, 27). In other words, we can call a catechism the building blocks of faith. Luther called the Small Catechism the “layman’s Bible,” for it “contains what every Christian should know” (LC Short Preface, 2).
Before Luther, Confirmation was viewed as completing Baptism. Conversely, for Luther, catechesis is Baptism’s counterpart in the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). For Luther, catechesis is the “counterpart to Baptism for the making of disciples. If Baptism carries us into the church by transferring us from the kingdom of Satan into Christ’s kingdom, catechesis imparts the minds of Christ so that we put to death the old ways of thinking and bring to life new patterns of thought” (Arand, 28). In other words, catechesis (and Confirmation as an extension of this) does not supplant Baptism but is its counterpart, its “sidekick.” If Baptism is Batman, catechesis is Robin.
The catechism has a long and complicated history, but it should suffice to say that Luther’s catechism rose from the lack of Scriptural knowledge among peasants and the clergy. Hardly anyone, pastors included, could recite the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. However, the literacy rate of the people was extremely low. At most, the literacy rate was five percent (Arand, 91). So, by the time Luther’s catechism became popular in the 1520s, catechetical instruction took place in sermons, the liturgy, and hymns. Oral tradition remained the means by which catechetical instruction was disseminated in conjunction with the catechism’s written dissemination.
Through preaching and reading by literate clergy, the common folk would learn the catechism by ear via Sunday Matins and Vespers, Sunday Mass, and weekday services. Hymns also aided in this effort. “In some respects, hymns provided the lay person the primary means of verbal participation in the liturgy. Putting the catechism to verse had the advantage of not only putting the Gospel into the ears of its hearers (like the sermons), but of also putting the catechism on the lips of the congregational members, thereby helping them to remember its texts and contents.” Furthermore, “Lutheran hymns not only expressed the response of faith sung within a liturgical context, they were also theological songs that declared the substance of the faith” (Arand, 79).
Due to Luther’s focus on catechesis, Confirmation was able to move forward with better use. Martin Bucer would create the rite of Confirmation as we recognise it today (laying on of hands, invocation of the Holy Spirit, and the examination of faith for the Eucharist), solidified in the Brandenburg Order of 1540, moving into the 17th century with recognition from C.F.W. Walther (Boyle, 134).
Confirmation underwent several changes as the result of specific movements throughout the next few centuries. Pietism in the 17th and 18th centuries emphasised conversion, and so Confirmation/catechesis largely focused on the catechumen’s ability to articulate their personal faith of the heart. By the 19th century, Rationalism emphasised knowledge, giving rise to pedagogy we still largely use today in exams and writing essays, as well as memorisation.
However or whenever catechetical instruction and Confirmation take place, one thing is clear throughout its long, complicated history: catechesis does not end at Confirmation. One does not “graduate” from catechesis. For Luther, catechesis occurs “before, during, and after receiving the blessed sacrament [the Eucharist]” (Boyle, 140). No one truly masters the catechism, that is, faith. As Rev. Fisk says, “But the master is not someone who has graduated from the most basic forms. He is precisely a master of them. He never moves beyond them, never discards them, always uses them as the foundation of everything else” (Fisk, 15).
Speaking as a former professional saxophonist, I did not master the scales, but I became a master of them. I never moved beyond them or discarded them but always used them as the foundation of my entire musical performance. In the same way, a disciple never moves beyond or discards the catechism but always uses it as the foundation of his or her faith. As John Pless beautifully says, “catechesis itself is from the womb to the tomb” (Boyle, 142).
Arand, Charles P. That I May Be His Own. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000.
Boyle, Geoffrey R. “Confirmation, Catechesis, and Communion: A Historical Survey.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 79, no 1-2 (January/April 2015): 1-190.
Fisk, Jonathan. Echo: Unbroken Truth. Worth Repeating. Again. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018.