Confirmation is the distinctively Western name for the rite of laying on of hands or of unction, but it does not occur until the middle of the fifth century when it is used in the verbal form by Leo the Great in a letter to Nicetas of Aquilea with a primary reference to the imposition of hands. Faustus of Riez whose work can be dated in the second half of the fifth century, is the first writer to use the noun ‘ confirmatio ‘. Probably the origin of this usage is to be found in the Latin version of 2 Corinthians 1:21, ‘Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ and hath anointed us is God’ which reads ‘ qui autem confirmat nos vobiscum in Christum ‘. The corresponding Greek word is [untranslated] which first occurs with this technical meaning in the Apostolic Constitutions, a Syrian work of the latter part of the fourth century. Before ‘confirmatio’ came into general use as a descriptive term for this rite, the Latins employed the terms, ‘signaculum,’ ‘chrisma,’ ‘perfectio,’ whlle in the East the usual terms were ‘ seal ‘ or ‘ perfection ‘. Confirmation is thus a term which in Christian history covers a diversity of practice, for neither in the manner of administration nor in the conceptions associated with it, does it stand for a fixed and uniform rite. There is no consistent tradition either in the form or in the matter of the rite while the minister may sometimes be a presbyter and on other occasions a bishop. This variety of custom with differing theological understandings of the meaning of the rite can be traced back to the New Testament. Indeed in the paucity of references which makes it impossible to enunciate certain definite conclusions, the New Testament is a mirror of subsequent church history.
The laying on of hands was a familiar religious action to the Jew of the first century. In the Old Testament it signified the bestowal of a spiritual gift, a blessing, healing or appointment to a particular function. Our Lord is recorded to have laid his hands in blessing on the children brought to Him. The Christian community took over this rite and gave it deeper and richer significance but without express command of the Lord. Baptism was the sacrament of admission into the Christian fellowship and the laying on of hands was associated with special gifts of the Holy Spirit. Twice in the history of the Apostolic Church it is recorded that the gift of the Holy Spirit was bestowed (through the imposition of hands) upon a number of persons already baptised. It is evident that on these occasions the laying on of hands was a distinct rite administered separately from the washing of baptism, but it cannot be affirmed that the laying on of hands was a regular sequel to baptism in the Apostolic age. On each of the recorded occasions the gift of the Spirit resulted in the manifestation of ecstatic qualities and the stories may have been told primarily in the interest of these prophetic gifts. Again it is impossible to know whether these incidents are to be regarded as typical illustrations of early church order or as evidences for the abiding presence in the community of the Spirit bestowed at Pentecost and now dividing to every man, severally, as He will, the gifts of His power. It must be remembered that other passages such as the story of Cornelius tell of the same gift of the Spirit bestowed without either baptism or the imposition of hands, which suggests that Luke’s real interest lay in the gift of the Spirit and the evident tokens of His presence and not in the media of His coming. The evidence does not allow of any certain conclusion about the minister of such a rite, whether or not he must be of apostolic rank, nor is there any indication that in post-apostolic generations its administration was to be confined to any particular grade of ministers. The reference in the Epistle to the Hebrews to the laying on of hands as one of the six foundation principles of the doctrine of Christ would suggest a frequent use of the ordinance before the end of the first century. The close association of ‘ baptisms ‘ and ‘ laying on of hands ‘ in this passage seems to indicate confirmation, though the laying on of hands was also used for other purposes. It is likely that in the undeveloped form of ministry prevalent at that time, all accredited ministers would be capable of administering such a rite.
The two centuries following the Apostolic age were marked by great but almost silent development in the rites of the Christian Church. From the rudimentary elements visible in the apostolic period, the rites were gradually developed into the forms which were later embodied in the liturgical books. Justin Martyr, in his first Apology, gives an account of baptism as it was administered in the Roman Church soon after the middle of the second century. A period of preparation and instruction preceded baptism which was administered after a profession of faith and a promise to live according to the teaching that had been received. After the baptism all returned to the place of religious assembly, “to make common prayers for ourselves and for the enlightened person and for all others everywhere ” and to share in the Eucharist. The rite is called ‘ regeneration ‘ and the ‘ washing ‘ or ‘ enlightenment ‘ and there is no allusion to confirmation. It is difficult to assess the value of the evidence afforded by the Didache, ‘that spoilt child of criticism’ but if, as seems likely, it dates from the later part of the second century, the absence of any reference to confirmation in its detailed instructions for baptism is significant.
The most important feature in the life of the second century church was the struggle with Gnosticism and in the absence of orthodox evidence, information coming from Gnostic sources bears witness to interesting developments in the rite of initiation into the Christian fellowship. The Acts of Thomas which is probably a third century work of Syrian origin describes the rite of baptism preceded by unctions: ‘ Holy oil, given us for sanctification . . . Let thy power come and rest on thy servant Mygdonia; and heal her through this unction … When she had been baptized and had dressed herself, he (the apostle) broke bread and took a cup and made her communicate in the body of Christ and the cup of the Son of God and said, ‘ Thou hast received the seal, and won for thyself eternal life.’ The practice of unction before baptism appears to have been in general use among Syriac speaking Christians, nor was it confined to them since they were pioneers in liturgical work and their influence spread to other areas. The difficulty posed by the early Gnostic and Syrian evidence is to know whether these rites reflect general Christian practice at the time or whether the origins of many of the features of later confirmation are to be found here.
The evidence for orthodox practice comes to light in the writings of Tertullian and Cyprian in the third century. The word catechumen, though of Greek origin, first appears in their writings and shows that careful preparation and discipline preceded the reception of baptism. After prayers, fastings and vigils the candidates were assembled before the bishop at some time in the solemn season between Easter and Pentecost and renounced ” the devil, his pomp and his angels “. Baptism was then performed with three immersions, at each of which a question on belief in the Trinity was put to the candidate. This was followed by unction, signing and imposition of the hand. The newly baptised and confirmed then participated in communion, and partook of a draught of milk and honey as a symbol of the blessings of the Promised Land into which they had entered. Tertullian furnishes a commentary on the significance of these ceremonies in an eloquent passage in the treatise ‘De Resurrectione Camis’: ” The flesh is washed, that the soul may be rid of its stain ; the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed with the cross, that the soul also may be protected ; the flesh is overshadowed by the imposition of the hand, that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit ; the flesh is fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, that the soul also may be made fat from God.”9 Several comments may be added on this evidence. First, what now appear amongst us as three separate though related acts, baptism, confirmation and first communion, in the third century formed one liturgical act of admission into the Christian church and participation in its privileges. Secondly, these ceremonies, like all ancient baptismal rites, were designed for the use of adults. The practice of infant baptism was spreading rapidly in the third century, although Tertullian did not like it and urged its postponement: ” If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay.” 10 Thirdly, the gift of the Spirit is explicitly attributed to the imposition of the hand: “Not that in the waters we obtain the Holy Spirit ; but in the water under the influence of the angel, we are cleansed and thus prepared for the Holy Spirit “.n Unction is the token of consecration ” from the old discipline wherein on entering the priesthood men were wont to be anointed with oil from a horn “. “The hand is laid on us invoking and inviting the Holy Spirit through the words of benediction . . . over our cleansed and blessed bodies, willingly descends from the Father that Holiest Spirit : over the waters of baptism, recognising as it were His primeval seat, He reposes “. Fourthly, the minister of such rites is the bishop. Admission into the Christian fellowship is so solemn an act and so great a matter of importance for the Christian community itself, that it is desirable that one of the chief officers of the co.oununity should be the agent of divine grace on the occasion.
Three factors in the developing life of the church were destined to exercise profound and far-reaching influences both on the theology and on the liturgical practice outlined above. In the first place as Christianity moved out of the missionary period of its early life into the stage when many could look back on several generations of Christian forbears, infant baptism became the normal practice justified by the analogy of the rite of circumcision in the Jewish church. Secondly the Christian community itself had multiplied so rapidly in number and influence that it was hardly possible to restrict baptism to the former period of Easter to Pentecost. If infants were to be baptised within eight days of birth then the rite would have to be administered at all seasons of the year. Thirdly, the geographical expansion of the Church went hand in hand with a growing tendency for bishops, as among the few well-educated and experienced men available, to become preoccupied with civil affairs, so that it was a physical impossiblity for them to be present at every baptism-confirmation. There were various ways in which this changing situation could have been confronted. One method which was rejected particularly in the West, would have been a great increase in the episcopate. A second method which was in fact followed in the East was the delegation to the presbyter of the right to administer baptism-confirmation as one rite of admission to full membership in the Church of Christ. The question whether the presbyter could confirm does not appear to have been raised in the East but merely assumed, since the administration of the rite in its completeness came to be in the hands of the presbyters. Thus the unity of the rite of initiation consisting of baptism, confirmation and first communion was preserved. But, apart from certain compressions, a rite originally designed for adult catechumens was used without significant change for infants. The practice of the Orthodox church has remained unchanged to this day. A modern Eastern theologian, commenting on the Sacrament of Chrism, declares it to be “absolutely necessary for the accomplishment of the purpose of baptism” as is shown by the practice of the Apostolic and post-Apostolic church. The matter of the rite is not the laying on of hands but anointing with chrism, the minister is the priest and normally the recipients are infants a few days of age. The preparatory parts of the rite represented by the catechumenate have largely disappeared as a logical result of this development. Eastern theologians contend that there are no adequate grounds for depriving infants of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of the rights of full membership in the Church, implied in the practice of the Western church which separates the two Sacraments. The special relationship of the episcopate to the rite of initiation, characteristic of the early centuries, has not been entirely obscured since the chrism can only be consecrated by the bishop, and the priest anoints with this consecrated oil. In this way the bishop is still designated the minister of the sacrament which is distributed through priests for the convenience of the faithful, “thus not depriving, even temporarily, the faithful from the grace conferred through this sacrament.”
The third way of dealing with a changing situation was the method actually followed in the West. Infant baptism rapidly became universal after the fourth century, and current sacramental theology, based on an ex opere operato doctrine provided the necessary justification. The large dioceses in the West made it impossible for a bishop to attend the baptism of more than a small portion of his flock and priests, through the pressure of circumstances, became the normal ministers of this sacrament. (Indeed in earlier times, priests and deacons had assisted the bishop in the baptism but not in the .andanointing.) Neither the Pope nor the bishops were willing to surrender entirely the prerogatives of the episcopate in the initiatory rites of the Church. Hence the separation of the rite into the two distinct rites of baptism and confirmation followed as a practical necessity. But this separation was neither a simple nor a speedy process and priests in some parts of the Western church maintained for centuries their claim to confirm as well as to baptize. Jerome writing in 379, assigned confirmation to the bishop as a matter of orderliness and dignity but not as a fundamental necessity, since he was well aware that a strict limitation of the power to confirm, to the bishops might prove very inconvenient for people living in remote places. The practice of episcopal confirmation was rather “for the honouring of the bishop’s office than from law of necessity”. It was inevitable that he should regard the practice in this light as he believed confirmation to be that part of baptism which conferred the gift of the Holy Spirit and he could not contemplate large numbers of the faithful deprived of this gift for many years through lack of adequate episcopal visitation. In a letter written early in the fifth century to Decentius of Gubbio, Pope Innocent I revealed the determination of the Roman bishops to restrict the power of confirming to the episcopate. Presbyters might anoint the head with chrism previously blessed by the bishop but the signing of the cross on the forehead (the vertical unction) was to be reserved to bishops when they gave the Holy Spirit. Presbyters did not accept this ruling without a struggle for a Council of Orange later in the same century forbade two chrismations, indicating that they had continued to exercise what they believed to be their right. It is noteworthy that the imposition of hands is not mentioned by Innocent in his letter. As in the East, so in the West anointing had come to take the place of the laying on of hands as the matter of the rite, though it is probable that the signirig of the forehead of the candidate with the Cross was regarded as including the imposition of the hand. The pontifical of Egbert, Archbishop of York (tenth century) contains interesting evidence for the administration of Confirmation in that period. After prayer for the sevenfold gift of the Spirit, the bishop put the chrism on the forehead of the candidate in the form of a cross, saying, ‘Receive the sign of the Holy Cross, by the chrism of salvation, in Jesus Christ, unto eternal life’. Other prayers followed but there was no laying on of hands as a distinct action .. In some forms of the rite the bishop was. directed to extend his hands towards or over the candidates but in others this was omitted entirely.
The practice of the Western church was thus, in the course of time sharply divided from the custom of the East and it can be said that with rare exceptions, by the time of Charlemagne in the West, baptism and confirmation were administered as two distinct rites often separated by a considerable period of time. Many practical problems followed upon this separation for bishops were increasingly preoccupied with affairs of state and most of them presided over huge dioceses with inadequate episcopal help. For this reason it became quite common for communion to be given to those who were baptized but had not been confirmed through no fault of their own. Clearly they could not be deprived indefinitely of the benefits of the eucharist, that is of a sacrament counted necessary to salvation, through the pastoral inefficiency of the hierarchy. It is still a common practice in the Roman church to give first Communion to children before they are confirmed ; in some cases immediately before Confirmation, in others with a considerable interval between the two rites, in order to allow of further instruction.
Medieval English Synods favoured early Confirmations. A synod held at Exeter in 1287 ordered that children were to be confirmed before they were three years old and parents who neglected this rule were to fast every Friday on bread and water until their children were confirmed. Apparently children were to be brought to the bishop at the first opportunity given by his presence in the neighbourhood. This is the probable explanation of the rule that children were to be confirmed within three years since the bishop was expected to make a visitation of his diocese once in every three years. On the continent about the same time, a Synod of Cologne (1280) directed priests to admonish parents to bring any children yet unconfirmed to the bishop at the age of seven years and upwards. The manner of administration was often perfunctory and even scandalous, crowds surrounding the bishop who would sometimes confirm from horseback. The great emphasis on the Eucharist and the obstacles in the way of the regular administration of confirmation led to the obvious result of widespread neglect of the rite. Despite the fact that it had been officially ranked as one of the seven sacraments in the Sentences of Peter Lombard in the middle of the twelfth century, ecclesiastical authority was obliged in practice to admit that it was not a necessary preliminary to communion. Consequently the laity did not value it very highly and in 1281 Archbishop Peckham in his Lambeth Constitutions sought to remedy the abuse. ” Many neglect the Sacrament of Confirmation for want of watchful advisers; so that there are many, innumerable many, who want the grace of Confirmation, though grown old in evil days. To cure this damnable neglect, we ordain that none be admitted to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood that is not confirmed, except at the point of death, unless he have a reasonable impediment “. This regulation passed into the Sarum Manual and thence into our Prayer Book as the rubric printed at the end of the Confirmation service ; ‘ and there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed ‘.
A study of medieval theologians illustrates a corresponding theological uncertainty about the institution, the matter, the form and the minister of Confirmation. Four views have been current in the West on the essential matter of this rite, formally declared a Sacrament. Ante-Nicene testimony generally holds that the essential matter consists in the imposition of hands alone. Eastern theologians regard Chrism as the matter of confirmation, although they are prepared to concede the imposition of hands as sufficient Confirmation. This view has found slight support in the West. Some regard the essential matter as consisting in either the imposition of hands or the chrism and Aquinas describes chrism as conveniens materia huius sacramenti viewed in the light of the established usage of the church. The most generally accepted view is that the matter is imposition of hands and chrism conjointly, that is, the action which takes place in the anointing, accompanying the words ‘ et confirmo te chrismate salutis ‘. There is a similar uncertainty about the form, partly on account of the lack of exact knowledge of early precedent. Aquinas regards the formula ‘ consigno te sequo crucis ‘ as the conveniens forma of Confirmation, but in the Ordo Romanus of the eighth century the sufficient formula is given as confirmo te in nomine.’ Normally the Bishop alone is the minister of the rite but priests have been extraordinary ministers of the sacrament by special delegation from the Pope in cases of missionary exigency. The precedent created by Gregory the Great could not be entirely ignored, for in 594 he had written to Januarius of Cagliari in the following terms : ‘ It has reached us that some have been offended because we forbade presbyters to touch the baptizandi with the chrism. For our part, indeed, we did according to the long standing usage of our church ; but if it be true that some are distressed about the matter, we allow that where bishops cannot be had, presbyters also are to touch the baptizandi on their foreheads with the chrism.”u Where bishops were not available, the Sardinian presbyters were clearly authorised to confirm. The general disallowance of priestly confirmation in the West is clearly a matter of discipline which can be dispensed with by authority. It is worth noting that in the two Italian dioceses administered by the abbots of Monte Cassino “and La Cava, these prelates, though only presbyters, administer Confirmation with chrism previously consecrated by a bishop.
As a consequence of these theological difficulties, the Council of Trent did not formulate many canons on the subject and the aim of the deliberations was defensive rather than definitive. It was content to affirm Confirmation to be a Sacrament, to decide that the ordinary minister is a bishop and to condemn those who maintain that to ascribe virtue to the sacred chrism is to offer outrage to the Holy Ghost. Elsewhere, the Council defined ‘ in Confirmation, a character is imprinted in the soul, a certain spiritual and indelible sign, on account of which the sacrament cannot be repeated ‘.2 3 It was this theological uncertainty together with the elaborate ceremonies of the Sarum rite already declared by Wycliffe to be ” a piece of pompous mummery ” which confronted the Reformers in their task of theological and liturgical reconstruction.
On one point all the Reformers were agreed, in treating Confirmation as an ecclesiastical ordinance and not a sacrament. They could find no warrant in Scripture for supposing that it possessed the same importance as Baptism or the Lord’s Supper. There was no record of its institution by the Lord or of its regular practice by the Apostles and there was no Word of Promise attached to make it a sacrament of the Gospel. Consequently, in the disturbed conditions of ecclesiastical order in the sixteenth century it did not seem to be a matter of concern if the primary responsibility for its administration was placed on the parish parson. Secondly the Reformers were also in substantial agreement in their emphasis on the instruction to precede confirmation so that it should become the occasion of a deliberate and public confession of faith on the part of those who had come to years of discretion. It should be remembered that children reached maturity much earlier in the sixteenth century than they do today. Abundant evidence for this fact is to be found in marriage records and in the very early age of the majority of undergraduates. Thus Confirmation has no mean place in the grand controversy with Rome which fills the record of the Reformation.
In the Lutheran churches, confirmation is treated with high seriousness as a great moment in the Christian life of the candidate and in the family life of the Church. The minister of confirmation is the parish pastor and not the bishop, even although as in the Church of Sweden an unbroken episcopal succession has been maintained since the Reformation. In Sweden it is not uncommon for the minister to extend his hands towards the candidates as in the Roman rite but in the Danish and Norwegian churches the imposition of the right hand on the candidate’s head is prescribed in the Services. Prominence is given both to instruction and to a public examination of the candidates beforehand and there is no emphasis upon any particular gift of the Holy Spirit associated with the rite.
Calvin was not without a sound appreciation of the proper value of Confirmation, if purged of the unscriptural accretions of the centuries. It was, he says, in ancient times customary for the children of Christians after they had grown up to appear before the bishop to fulfil that duty required of such adults as presented themselves for baptism. “In order that this act … might have more reverence and dignity, the ceremony of laying on of hands was also used …. This laying on of hands which was done by way of benediction, I commend and would like to see restored to its pure use in the present day.” But the absence of instruction and catechising prior to Confirmation and the prominence given to anointing in place of the laying on of hands drew forth his severe· condemnation. ”Who taught them to seek salvation in oil ? Who taught them to attribute to it the power of strengthening ? “Baptism and confirmation without instruction or catechising was tantamount to dissevering” the proper promises of baptism from baptism.”
Despite this lead given by Calvin himself, the Reformed churches have mostly contented themselves with courses of preparation for first Communion, although within late years the tendency has been towards the observance of a rite. The French Reformed Church has a service for the admission of catechumens to the Lord’s Supper in which after public examination in the faith the minister lays his hand on the head of each person kneeling before him with the words “je te confinne tlans l’ alliance du bapteme au nom du Pere, du Fits et du Saint-Espril.”
In the Church of Scotland after classes for instruction, the minister recommends to the Kirk Session the persons to be admitted to for church membership and a date for Confirmation is appointed. At that service the presiding presbyter invokes the Holy Spirit on the candidates for the .confirmation of their baptismal grace and of the vows they have made.
The Church of England presents the example of a reformed church which deliberately retained Confirmation and made the bishop the sole minister of the rite, while reconstructing the service on the basis of apostolic practice as recorded in the New Testament. In common with other evangelical churches, the title of sacrament is restricted to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the rite is so constructed that the salient feature is the solemn profession of the candidates in the renewal of the baptismal vows. The episcopal action is limited to prayer and the imposition of the hand on the head of each candidate. The use of chrism and the sign of the cross are discontinued. The absence of any assertion of a specific gift through the laying on of hands is a definite characteristic of the teaching of the Fathers of the Church of England. Laying great stress on catechising they regarded Confirmation as the decent public recognition as full members of the Church of those who had demonstrated their knowledge of the faith and publicly testified their personal belief. The blessing of Confirmation resulted from the prayers of the bishop and the congregation, and the laying on of hands was, in Hooker’s phrase, “a ceremony betokening our restrained desires to the party, whom we present unto God by prayer “. Thomas Rogers who, as chaplain to Bishop Bancroft, may be regarded as a good churchman, published in 1587 an exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles. He set forth the teaching of the Church of England in these terms: “Touching Confirmation … rightly used as it was in the primitive church it is no sacrament, but a part of Christian discipline, profitable for the whole church of God “. Among the errors which he stigmatises as ‘ damnable and dangerous doctrine ‘ are the doctrines that the minister ” must be a bishop and none inferior minister ” and that ” the Holy Ghost is given in full “
The practice of Confirmation in the Church of England did not for a long while conform to the serious standard of reformed doctrine set out in the rite itself. Robert Cawdry, who was deprived of his benefice of Luffenham in 1587 for defying the rubrics of the Prayer Book, appealed against his sentence to Lord Burleigh, in the course of which he said that the Bishops themselves ” for the most part these twenty-nine years had not observed it . . . in not confirming of children as the book appointed ” Four years later, Whitgift found it necessary to issue to the bishops of his province an urgent letter ” for the better observance of catechizing and confirming of youth.” The testimony of Baxter shows that more than a generation later, about 1630, conditions were no better. He describes how the bishop came into the neighbourhood and he and other boys ran to see him. “The bishop examined us not at all in one article of the faith ; but in a churchyard in haste we were set in a rank and he passed hastily over us, laying his hand on our heads and saying a few words which neither I nor any that I spoke with understood ; so hastily were they uttered and a very short prayer recited and there was an end. But whether we were Christians or infidels, or knew so much as that there was a God, the bishop little knew or inquired. And yet he was esteemed one of the best bishops in England. . . This was the old careless practice of this excellent duty of confirmation.” The new standards of ministerial duty which came to prevail as a result of the Evangelical revival and the Oxford movement have made this. carelessness in administration, a thing of the past in our church. It is evident that although the ordinance may rightly be called apostolic, it is nonetheless a church ordinance and its manner of administration may lawfully be varied by the church if there seems to be good reason for so doing. Since the Reformation we have had the opportunity of using a rite based upon reformed theology and one which seeks seriously to grapple with the disappearance of the catechumenate through universal infant baptism.