(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.
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:
- The separation of confirmation from the rites of initiation.
- The focus on the presence of a bishop and other juridical matters.
- The separation of confirmation from chrismation.
- 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?