Why bother confirming?

John H has picked up a fantastic post by All the Fullness on how confirmation snuck into our churches by the backdoor and ended up confusing the whole “who’s in and out” issue on communion.

In the early Church, baptism, confirmation, and first communion were always done together, in a single rite of Christian initiation. The unified rite of baptism/confirmation was understood to effect regeneration and to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit. They were not thought of as two “different” sacraments (if for no other reason than that the term “sacrament,” and the whole taxonomy of sacraments and sacramentals had not been invented yet); but since the Son and the Holy Spirit have distinct, but complementary, roles in the economy of salvation, the two actions of being united to the Son and receiving the Holy Spirit may properly be distinguished, even though they happened in the same rite.

The connection between confirmation and first communion was, I think, originally due to the notion that baptism without confirmation was somehow incomplete. If a person has not been fully initiated into the Church (by having received the gift of the Holy Spirit), how can that person receive Holy Communion? But if baptism is rightly understood as full initiation, both in the Christological and pneumatological dimensions, then what more needs to happen to enable a person to receive communion? You’re either in Christ or you are not. If you aren’t, you daren’t approach the altar; but if you are, the priest ought not to turn you away.

Why, then, do our pastors not commune infants and young children? The usual explanation, I think, is that children do not have the understanding necessary for the faith to “discern the body” in the sacrament of the altar. As John H said in a comment on the thread that started this, 1 Corinthians 11:27ff … strongly implies that some degree of understanding and belief is *ordinarily* necessary … “faith in these words” … implies some understanding of those words.

But I do not think we want to identify faith with understanding, or worse, to make faith dependent on understanding — Credo ut intelligam and all that. As soon as we do that, we cut the ground out from under infant baptism. Faith is, of course, a gift of grace, through Word and Sacrament – not the product of our intellect and thus dependent on our understanding. He has faith in those words who has received that faith through Word and Sacrament, not just he who understands the words (shall we turn the mentally retarded away from the altar?).

Preach it brother!!! Baptism by water (not confirmation) is a signifier (but no guarantee) of entry into the visible church, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (not confirmation) is the only sure and certain way to enter into the invisible church. Since we cannot ultimately rule on the second we should happily accept the first as the doorway to the Eucharistic Table.

2 Comments on “Why bother confirming?

  1. Thank you for your kind words about my post.

    Unfortunately, I must say that you are reading things into my post that are not there. I would not say of baptism (or of any sacrament) that it is “a signifier (but no guarantee)”. Quite the contrary: a sacrament is precisely a promise of God, the objective effect of which is absolutely to be relied upon. I was at pains in my post to affirm that the Holy Spirit is objectively bestowed through the sacramental ministry of the Church; not through some uncovenanted event (“baptism in the Holy Spirit”) unconnected with the public ministry of Word and Sacrament. I am, after all, a Lutheran; and our public confession clearly states that it is through the public, external means of grace, and through them alone, that God brings about our conversion, justification, and sanctification. For example:

    “Therefore God, out of His immense goodness and mercy, has His divine eternal Law and His wonderful plan concerning our redemption … publicly preached; and by this (i.e, through public preaching) collects an eternal Church for Himself from the human race, and works in the hearts of men true repentance and knowledge of sins, and true faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And by this means, and in no other way, namely, through His holy Word … and the holy Sacraments … God desires to call men to eternal salvation, draw them to Himself, and convert, regenerate, and sanctify them.” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration II.50)

    I am surprised by your attitude towards confirmation as something “snuck in through the back door”. I should have thought (having been raised (and confirmed) as an Anglican myself) that as an Anglican priest, part of your duty is to catechize children in preparation for confirmation, and to present them to the bishop for confirmation (as the Book of Common Prayer requires). How do you reconcile this with your negative attitude towards confirmation?

  2. Hi Chris,

    Firstly, I hope it’s clear that the final paragraph (i.e. where I don’t quote you) is my opinion on baptism not yours.

    I’m quite happy to catechise anybody in preperation for baptism. For me the difficulty is whether I think theologically confirmation (or lack of it) should be the gateway to Communion. I just can’t see any justification for it in Scripture. I’m actually a huge fan of Lutheran theology (my Grandfather was a Lutheran Superintendent in Austria) though I am cautious whether the act of Baptism in any way guarantees the gift of the Holy Spirit, for if so then we would, given that to receive the Spirit is to enter into the body of the elect, be essentially preaching Baptismal Regeneration. I think rather that Baptism signifies (and to do so is vitally important) the work of the Spirit in all those whom are regenerated. Whether the child I baptise receives Christ and the Spirit at some later (or earlier) point is not contingent upon them having been correctly baptised previously (afterwards?). Likewise, the significatorial laying on of hands and imploration of the Spirit’s activity in confirmation does not necessarily guarantee that activity, but it does very importantly indicate what he (the Spirit) may well do.

    In summary:

    i) The visible actualities point to the invisible possibilities
    ii) The limiting of Eucharistic membership to those confirmed seems to negate the visibile actuality of Baptism

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