Confirmation: A Problematic History?

(This is Neil) For some time, I’ve wanted to continue discussing the sacrament of confirmation. See here, one of the not uncommon posts where the comments are better than the original post. In this post, we’ll look more at the history of confirmation to draw some theological conclusions. I will be indebted throughout to Gabriele Winkler’s “Confirmation or Chrismation? A Study in Comparative Liturgy,” which appeared in Worship in 1984 and was reprinted here.

First, Professor Winkler examines three liturgical books from early eighth century Gaul. The Missale Gallicanum Vetus was written in northeastern France.  It doesn’t speak of a postbaptismal rite performed by the bishop nor does it prescribe a laying on of hands. Instead, after the baptism, the presbyter recites a formula for an anointing, followed by a footwashing. The formula is recited to God, “qui te regeneravit ex acqua et spiritu sancto.” Similarly, the Missale Gothicum, from Autun or Alsace, also contains a formula for a postbaptismal anointing, followed by a footwashing.

In addition, the Bobbio Missal, probably written in the northwest Alps, prescribes a prebaptismal anointing. The text (in translation) reads, “After this you shall breathe into his mouth three times and say: N., receive the Holy Spirit, mayest thou guard him in thy heart.” This text connects the anointing with the pouring of oil over David’s head and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

We can say that all three missals are  influenced by the Syrian tradition, drawing on John 3:5 and the theme of being “born of water and Spirit.” For instance, all three missals have a prebaptismal blessing of the font that refers to John 3:5. The specific emphases on the Holy Spirit and being “born again” are important to remember.

Here, says Winkler, we also see the “archaic shape of initiation rites where either the bishop or the presbyter could confer baptism, including the postbaptismal anointing.” We can confirm this “archaic shape” by looking at evidence from Spain. Early Spanish documents show one postbaptismal anointing. The first Council of Toledo (397?) declared that a presbyter could, if the bishop were absent, perform the anointing with oil that had earlier received episcopal blessing. Only at the beginning of the 7th century, do we see presbyters being forbidden from performing the anointing. And this shows the increasing influence of Rome.

Outside of Rome, then, there were communities that practiced one postbaptismal anointing. As in the contemporary East, the presbyter could perform the anointing.

But these missals do not use the terms confirmare and confirmatio. Those terms first appear in the juridical language of the local synods of south Gaul. It is important to note the obvious difference between liturgical and juridical language.

The most important Gallic council for our purposes is the Council of Orange (441), whose second canon uses the term confirmatio. Of course, in Rome there was a double anointing with a distinct laying on of hands. But Winkler says that, here, “confirmation” might simply refer to the postbaptismal anointing that we later see in the Gallic missals. Specifically, in this second canon, the Council of Orange might have been speaking of bishops anointing those who hadn’t been anointed when they were baptized, because the baptismal minister lacked chrism that had received an episcopal blessing. The Council seems concerned not to duplicate the anointing, speaking of “one blessing” (una benedictio) “so that a repeated chrismation not be considered necessary.” Perhaps, Winkler says, rural ministers thought that two anointings were better than one.

During the fifth century in Gaul, confirmation became restricted to the bishop. Two canons of the Council of Riez (439) declared that an illegally consecrated bishop still had power to “confirm neophytes” (confirmare neophytes). Between 449 and 461, the Council of Arles said that a bishop, as opposed to an abbot, confirmed neophytes. “Confirmation” seems to still have meant the postbaptismal anointing. Nevertheless, this postbaptismal anointing was being separated from  baptism or duplicated when the bishop finally got to a rural area.

The point is that we see a growing focus on the validity of the rites of initiation and the character of the minister of initiation. Winkler will say that “Considerations about the outpouring of the Spirit contributed in no way to the growing usage of such terminology.” Juridical reflection on confirmation became separated from theological reflection on the meaning of the rite, and, we might say, developed a life of its own.

But what of “confirmation” as the laying on of hands? There is a fifth century homily from Gaul that has been credited, at different times, to Eusebius of Emesa and Faustus of Riez. (Who knows?) It speaks of a separate laying on of hands and employs the term “confirmare.” It later was conveniently credited to Pope Melchiades, and, now fortified with papal authority, was incorporated in the False Decretals, the Decretum of Gratian, and, finally, the Sentences of Peter Lombard. This homily separates confirmation and baptism. It associates the Holy Spirit with confirmation and Christ with baptism. Furthermore, the pneumatic character of confirmation is meant to strengthen the recipient for battle (confirmamur ad pugnam). (Already in baptism we are “born anew” and “washed.) Winkler finds this description wanting – the events in Acts 2 cannot be reduced to strengthening.

She writes:

No doubt the disciples were “strengthened” but this was the consequence of much deeper currents, of an infinitely more forceful event! At the core of this event stood the transformation of the disciples into apostles – a transformation expressed with the imagery of divine fire with its power, on the one hand, to burn to ashes that which cannot withstand the divine presence, and, on the other hand, to effect total illumination. The disciples are now apostles sent as their master was sent. Just as the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at the Jordan marked the beginning of the “public” life of Jesus as the Christ, so did the outpouring of the Spirit on the disciples effect a profound change in their lives. With the force of the Spirit they now went forth to proclaim the mighty works of God.

But now the “apostle” has become the “strengthened” soldier. The military images had previously been associated with the prebaptismal anointing – with the expulsion of evil, not the outpouring of the Spirit. Again, Winkler notes that “strengthening is the outcome, not the essence, of a much deeper and infinitely more consequential event – the bestowal of those mysterious currents of life which have their source in the inner divine stream of life.” None of the Gallican missals bothers to speak of “strengthening.”

Perhaps, then, in the West, some of our theological problems with confirmation have early roots. They are:

  1. The separation of confirmation from the rites of initiation.
  2. The focus on the presence of a bishop and other juridical matters.
  3. The separation of confirmation from chrismation.
  4. The reduction of confirmation to “strengthening,” which was then vulnerable to later semi-Pelagian interpretations.

But Gabriele Winkler ends by suggesting that the church might be getting back to the earlier history of confirmation, due to receptivity to the tradition of the East. Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution, Divinae consortium naturae (1971) [PDF], noted that the sacrament of confirmation is “conferred through the anointing with chrism on the forehead” – “the laying of hand on the elect … is not of the essence of the sacramental rite” – and that the effect of the sacrament is to be “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

What should be done?

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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10 Responses to Confirmation: A Problematic History?

  1. Jim McK says:

    Dear Neil,

    Very interesting comments. The link to Winkler’s article does not work, so this is without looking back at her work. (I have read it, but not recently)

    The difficulty in answering “what to do” lies in the information that has been left out. If confirmation was reduced to “strengthening”, what was it reduced from? Your other points have similar unanswered questions. Why the bishop? Do confirmation and chrismation flow from a single source? In what sense is confirmation initiatory?

    Most histories of “conf” trace it back as far as Tertullian’s description of baptism, where he describes those coming up from the water being anointed like the kings and priests of Israel in ancient times. Is this a perspective that can fill in the blanks? JP2, in Christifideles Laici applies this imagery to baptism, and specifically the postbaptismal anointing, but he was Polish and the Poles iirc do not talk about baptism, but about christening. Even so, this seems to be the modern drift, to associate postb. chrismation with priesthood and kingship, and adolescent conf. with strengthening.

    If that is acceptable, what is the role of confirmation? Is it appropriate to have an adolescent rite of passage, recognizing that the advent of reason (age 7) or of adulthood (12) calls for a further initiation? How should this be linked to the history of chrismation? Could it be linked alternatively to the anointing of the sick?

    I do not really think these are legitimate alternatives, but I think we have to look at the question in this way to understand what was happening. The missals did not talk about conf. at baptism, but the Gallican synods tried to ensure a single anointing. Had a second anointing sprung up apart from the baptismal rite? Why exactly did they begin to use the term “confirmation”?

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Jim,

    I fixed the link (which is not to the text of the article, but the Maxwell Johnson edited collection in which it can perhaps be more easily found). I also fixed the formatting of the post.

    In terms of answers, I would like to speak cautiously. But, if the rite of confirmation has its roots in the Gallic missals, I would say that confirmation is the postbaptismal chrismation, that it originally could be performed by the presbyter, and that its effect is sealing with the Holy Spirit, not merely “strengthening.” (I will have to think more about the priest, king, prophet language – I do know the Tertullian reference.)

    Presently, I think that this would be compatible with the practice of the Eastern church.

    The term confirmatio first occurs in the Gallic synods as a juridical term.

    You are right to point out the desirability of an “adolescent rite of passage.” Some of the Greek and (I think) all of the Syrian Fathers distinguish between a a “full” and a “less full” possession of the Spirit, the former which comes when one accepts a life of discipleship. There certainly could be a ritual to commemorate this. Philoxenus even speaks of a “baptism of your own free will.” But this requires more reflection …



  3. Jim McK says:

    Dear Neil,

    To clarify, I was not pointing out the desirability of an adolescent rite of passage; I was asking if it is or was desirable. It is common enough across cultures to consider, but that is as far as I would go.

    I am not entirely convinced that confirmation grew out of just the baptismal anointing. The 8th century missals reflect the standard of the 5th century councils, ie a single anointing at the time of baptism by the minister. Apparently, they do not match the practice of an anointing later in life performed by a bishop that becomes the standard in the West.

    Finally, strengthening and being sealed with the Holy Spirit are not incompatible, since fortitude is one of the gifts of the Spirit (from Isaiah 11). Strengthening is one of the native meanings of anointing, and its Christian use goes back to St Paul’s talk about athletes. In my obviously idiosyncratic opinion, one of the main tasks of the NT is merging the Greek meanings for anointing(athletics, perfume) with the Semitic meanings (perfume, holiness, authority).

    Thanks for your comments. Sacramental anointing is a major interest of mine, though I rarely test ideas against anyone else’s. I hope you do not mind.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks for your clarification. I should make it clear at the outset that I don’t know as much as I would like about the history of confirmation. I’ll keep posting as I learn more.

    That said, I think that I can say:

    1. We should note that the 8th century missals are from the north of Gaul, while the 5th century councils are from the south.

    The 8th century missals show us that the practice of one postbaptismal anointing by either the bishop or the presbyter was the practice in both the Christian East and parts of the West.

    The 5th century councils, in their technical/juridical use of the term confirmatio, can also be interpreted to mean a single postbaptismal anointing, albeit one gradually reserved to the bishop.

    2. The other candidate for the origin of confirmation (besides the postbaptismal anointing) would seem to be the laying on of the hand as a separate rite, as in Africa and Rome. This rite does not seem to have existed in Gaul (outside of the anonymous homily mentioned in the post), nor, I think, the Christian East. Furthermore, Pope Paul VI has said that the laying on of the hand, as an action distinct from anointing, is not “of the essence of the sacramental rite.”

    3. We could argue that confirmation has mutiple origins and histories. But, at present, I don’t think that I could make that argument with any degree of theological coherence.

    4. Strengthening and being sealed with the Holy Spirit aren’t “incompatible.” But “strengthening” is an insufficient description of being sealed in the Holy Spirit.

    The anonymous homily, ascribed to Eusebius and Faustus, artificially separates baptism, which is seen as Christocentric, and confirmation, which is seen as centered on the Holy Spirit. Already, here, we run into theological problems, because baptism has to do with the Spirit (John 3:5).

    But, regarding confirmation, we run into more problems. Since baptism, now separated from confirmation, means that we are “born again” and “washed,” confirmation does not have to be transformative. It is merely the matter of “strengthening.”

    To be sure, confirmation “strengthens,” but, as Winkler says, “this was the consequences of much deeper currents.” “Strengthening is the outcome, not the essence, of a much deeper and infinitely more consequential event …”

    Does this make sense? I enjoy our discussions and am grateful for them.


  5. Jim McK says:

    Dear Neil,

    The “much deeper currents” of conf. underlie my interests, but I suspect my ideas differ from Winkler’s. However, I doubt that I could discuss the issues with much intelligence at this point.

    What we mean by confirmation is in need of some clarification, as I mentioned last time we discussed this. For infants who are baptized, there are two postbaptismal anointings: one immediately after baptism, and another later in life known as confirmation. When an adult is baptized, she receives only one anointing immediately after the baptism, and this is also called confirmation. And for those who were baptized without an accompanying anointing, we receive them into the Catholic church with an anointing called confirmation. And then there is a Protestant idea of confirmation which has no anointing, but is otherwise similar to the later-in-life confirmation of Catholics. “Confirmation” is in search of more than just a theology.

    For the infant, baptism contains an anointing with chrism which has significance, but is not confirmation. That is conferred later, which might be viewed as strengthening what was given in baptism.

    Obviously, the anointing given to adults with baptism is related to the chrismal anointing of baptism. If the baptismal anointing signifies prophet, priest and kingly identities, these elements are part of the deeper currents we seek, since confirmation is the only chrismal anointing when adults are baptized as adults.

    Those who were not anointed at baptism are confirmed when they become Catholics. Since the communities that baptized them probably intended to confer the prophet, priest and king identities with baptism, this confirmation is probably closer to the strengthening bestowed on those baptized as infants than it is to the chrismal anointing at baptism of an adult.

    Using the ‘prophet priest and king’ image as indicative of the deeper currents of sacramental anointing, we can gain insight on the question of order of reception. For the adult being baptized, confirmation confers the priestly identity that enables a full participation with the minister in offering the Eucharist. But for the child, that identity was conferred with the anointing of baptism, not confirmation, so the initiation order is not as significant.

    The same kind of situation applies with deciding if confirmation is transformative. For the adult, confirmation occurs with baptism, and IS transformative. For an infant who is baptized, it is separated, and so cannot be transformative in the same way.

    So which confirmation is our paradigm? Our answers to other questions might depend on which we choose.

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Jim,

    Thank you for your long and informative post. At this point – that is, without having read a large amount of the theological or historical literature – I can say:

    1. The practice of confirmation that I can sufficiently understand and explain, historically and theologically, is, in your words, “When an adult is baptized, she receives only one anointing immediately after the baptism, and this is also called confirmation.” (This is, as far as I understand, the Eastern practice – confirmation is not delayed until adolescence and precedes communion.)

    2. I can’t sufficiently understand and explain, historically and theologically, the other practices that you describe. (I mean, if someone came up to me and asked “What is the logic here?,” I couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation.)

    3. I can’t sufficiently understand and explain, historically and theology, how all of the practices that you describe can all be called “confirmation.”

    Now this isn’t a satisfactory place to be. I am not necessarily alleging some sort of ritual incoherence – again, I haven’t read everything that I should have read.

    But here I am.


  7. Jim McK says:

    Dear Neil,

    I have yet to find anyone who can understand and explain the dual anointing system so that I can understand it. Most take the anointing at baptism as making sense, and then try to fit the dual anointing into that model. This is my impression of Ms Winkler’s article, though I still have not found my copy of Maxwell’s book so I have not reread it.

    Unfortunately, most of us live with the dual anointing, receiving one at baptism and another at adolescence (7-20 years old). I assume this is your experience? Many questions are just asking to use the single system we can explain to determine the practice we cannot explain, eg “should we restore the original order of initiation?”

    This may be the right solution. I just think that before we go that route, we should have some idea of why and how the dual system developed. Episcopal convenience (He can’t be at EVERY baptism!) might be the explanation, but I am skeptical of that kind of answer.

  8. Neil says:

    Dear Jim,

    I can’t provide a theological explanation for the dual anointing system (although, I understand, it was a Roman practice). But, yes, the dual anointing is my experience.

    I gather, from reading Gabriele Winkler and Fr Paul Turner, that “episcopal convenience” (meaning a juridical conception of the rite) was the historical reason for the dual system. (Also, as Turner writes, “Because the history of the sacrament changed so much, theologians, pastors and bishops could make historical arguments for almost any meaning and practice of confirmation they wished to promote.”)

    If the reason is “episcopal convenience,” we might be reminded that the Orthodox theologians Zizioulas and Schmemann have suggested that the rise of the parish system marked a “radical change” in the history of the church. The bishop was no longer the presider over one Eucharist for one flock, but an administrator of many parishes, which he could visit from time to time. The presbyter became a sort of mini-bishop.

    So perhaps the dual system is a consequence of this “radical change.”



    PS I’m leaving out Adrian Kavanaugh’s book that suggests that the origin of confirmation is in an episcopal missa. I trust that’s alright for our purposes.

  9. Jim McK says:

    Dear Neil,

    Kavanaugh’s idea is interesting, but is not all that important to this part of the discussion. (unless it could be connected to the end of Mt…)

    Convenience theories usually leave too many unanswered questions. Here the most important one is the association of chrism and bishop. What is so critical about the chrism-bishop relation that a whole new rite/practice should be generated to preserve it? They first limited the blessing of the chrism to the bishop, but that was not enough; the bishop had to actually apply the chrism to those who were baptized. Why? What does this say about chrism?

    [The dual anointing at baptism probably arose from the practice of anointing the whole body at baptism. Helpers -- deacons & deaconesses, later priests -- did the whole body with the bishop finishing. This dual anointing continued even after the whole body anointing was replaced by anointing the head.]

    More was probably going on. “Heretics” were doing baptisms without anointing. Perhaps others were anointing people later in life in a charismatic ‘initiation’. To institutionalize this, bishops first limited anointing to a single one, at baptism. But as is so often the case, they eventually adopted a form of it for adolescence. Or some other process happened that was compelling enough that bishops changed their tradition and adopted it.

    My interest is primarily in the “deeper currents” Winkler described, and I guess I usually hear convenience arguments from people who have little feel for those deep currents. Sometimes convenience is the reason, and may be here. In that case, “strengthening” is a good enough explanation too.


  10. Neil says:

    Dear Jim,

    Thanks for your message. I’m afraid that I can’t really add anything. At this point, I think that I would want to read some sort of theological argument for the present practice of confirmation. As you write, “Convenience theories usually leave too many unanswered questions.” (Of course, I don’t know where to find a better argument.)

    Truly a strange situation …

    Thanks again – I’m really grateful for this conversation.


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