Confirmation is the ceremony in the Protestant Church by which the young person (baptized as an infant) at the age of 14 to 16 is received as a member of the church and admitted to communion with a ceremony of consecration by the minister, upon the confession of faith after instruction by the preacher and an examination passed before the assembled church.
The attempt has been made to trace confirmation back to apostolic times and to equate it to the laying on of hands by the apostles at baptism, by which act the gift of the Holy Spirit was given the candidate, based on passages like Acts 8:14-18; Acts 19:5-6; 2 Corinthians 1:21 (qui autem confirmat nos vobiscum in Christo, et qui unxit nos Deus), and Hebrews 6:1-2. But the proof is not established in any of these passages. It must be pointed out that in Acts the laying on of hands is always mentioned as immediately following baptism; nowhere is the character of an apostolic symbol of the covenant ascribed to it. And finally, its separation from baptism or ordination is without Biblical precedent.
Confirmation in the Protestant Church corresponds more or less to that in the old Catholic Church. In the Greek Orthodox Church it is considered an adaptation of apostolic laying on of hands made by the successors of the apostles, and is administered in connection with baptism as the "seal of the Holy Spirit."
Confirmation can be traced far back in Roman Catholic history, where it was separated from baptism and made a sacrament. Tertullian (d. ca. 220) distinguishes between baptism and confirmation when he writes, "The body is washed, that the soul may be made spotless; the body is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the body is signed, that the soul may be consecrated; the body is shaded by the laying on of hands that the soul may be illumined by the Spirit" (De resurrectione carnis, p. 8).
In the 4th and 5th centuries confirmation became definitely an act reserved to the bishop, and as adult baptism became rarer, confirmation was applied to those who had been baptized as infants. For the Roman Catholic it is the second of the seven sacraments and was confirmed as such by the synods of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439); the council of Trent (1545-1563) emphatically declares confirmation to be a "true and real sacrament" (Sess. 7, can. 1, de confirmatione).
From the beginning of the Reformation the Protestant Church rejected the sacrament of confirmation, because it lacked the signs of a true sacrament, viz., institution by Jesus and a special promise, and because it was prejudicial to baptism. Luther called confirmation, consecration of the priests, and extreme unction "church customs."
In spite of this rejection the need soon arose out of the rejection of adult baptism and the baptismal vow as it was demanded by the Anabaptists, to create an equivalent and to invent a rite similar to Catholic confirmation, by which admission to church membership would become a solemn act. Adam Weiss, a reformer of Brandenburg-Ansbach, had already in 1527 suggested that in all the churches the children of accountable age should be annually instructed by the pastors on "baptism, faith, prayer" (G. Bossert, 185). But his suggestion was not followed (Beiträge zur bayrischen Kirchengesch, IV, 1898, 191).
The Apologie of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 again rejects confirmation; article XIII (VII) says, "Confirmation and extreme unction are ceremonies which come from the Fathers and have never been held necessary for salvation, for they have neither God's word nor command. Therefore it is well to distinguish them from [baptism and communion], which are instituted and commanded in God's Word and have a promise attached."
Not until they were involved in conflict with the Anabaptists, who insisted on a baptismal vow to live a Christian life, was confirmation introduced into the Protestant churches. The beginning was made by Martin Bucer, the reformer of Strasbourg. Calvin was also influenced during his sojourn in Strasbourg. Already at the great synod of Strasbourg in 1533, Caspar Schwenckfeld, under Anabaptist influence, raised the demand, "If they could not agree to abolish infant baptism, then at least a ceremony should be introduced, whereby baptized children, when they are grown, would be dedicated to Christendom." Bucer adopts this suggestion in his book (1534) Ad Monasterienses, and meets the Anabaptists halfway by recommending that all who had been baptized as infants and who had received catechetical instruction should be consecrated by the laying on of hands as independent members of the church.
But this plan was not adopted in Strasbourg. Later, when Bucer was called to Hesse to assist in a similar ecclesiastical situation, he proceeded with his plan, in order to counteract Anabaptist reproaches. Thereby Bucer became the founder of Protestant confirmation. This took place in the following manner:
In order to resist the rapid spread of Anabaptism in his land, Landgrave Philip called Bucer to Hesse in 1538. Not with violence, but with gentle persuasion the Anabaptists were to be won to the church. "We wanted to act graciously and leniently once more," says the landgrave in a letter to the Anabaptists, "and we have therefore appointed a God-fearing man to converse with you kindly about your error and to instruct you in the fundamentals" (Hochhuth, 612; Franz, No. 76).
Bucer complied with the wishes of the landgrave and held a disputation with the Anabaptist leaders (Peter Tasch, Hermann Bastian, Georg Schnabel, Leonhart Fälber, Peter Lose), some of whom had already been put in prison at Marburg. But he was countered with so many well-founded complaints against the church that he had to give in. When Georg Schnabel, whom he had appointed spokesman of the Anabaptists, said that in the church one took communion with "drunkards, usurers and fornicators," he replied that matters would be corrected (Hochhuth, 363), and to the charge that in baptism the apostolic order was not observed, children were baptized, but not taught repentance and Christian conduct, Bucer could only reply, "The children, when they are grown, should be faithfully catechized and taught all things that the Lord has commanded" (Hochhuth, 637). Hermann Bastian pointed out the lack of church discipline in the face of the increasing prevalence of vice among the people. It had indeed been said a year ago that the ban was to be instituted, but nothing had been done. "The church cannot exist without the ban and faith," with which Bucer agreed: "It is true; where there is no discipline and faith there is no church" (Hochhuth, 642).
Correctly realizing that here it was not a matter merely of defense, but of taking serious measures to remove the offenses that stirred up Anabaptist' resistance, Bucer made the suggestion in Wittenberg, in a letter to the landgrave, 17 November 1538, that all these complaints be brought before the proposed synod at Ziegenhain for action, "because they could in no other way make the Anabaptists more tractable or warn the common people better than by seriously practicing Christian discipline."
The synod met at the end of November 1538 at Ziegenhain (Kassel district). Following Bucer's suggestion, the Ziegenhainer Zuchtordnung of 1538 was set up. In its framework confirmation was introduced in the churches of the Reformation. The order stipulates that all children had to attend catechismal instruction, and on a holiday they were to be presented to the pastor in church, who would examine them on the principal doctrines of the Christian faith. After the children have "publicly yielded themselves to Christ the Lord and His church, they are to be confirmed by the laying on of hands and admonished to accept willingly at all times Christian discipline and punishment from every Christian, but principally from their pastor, and to obey" (Diehl, 5-13).
It was the landgrave's wish that the regulations for discipline should be first tried out in the individual communities, as Kassel and Marburg, and the details of enforcement worked out. This was done in a few days in Kassel in the Confirmation Formulary of Kassel of 1538, which states in its introduction: "Manner and usage is described in the Ziegenhain regulations for discipline, which we hope to put into effect here." Comparison of the Ziegenhain regulations and the Kassel Formulary reveals great similarity (Diehl, 19, 124 and following). The confirmation ceremony prescribed in these orders was confirmed by the Hessische Agende of 1574.
From Hesse the ceremony of confirmation was introduced to other regions in the 16th century, in Strasbourg, e.g., soon after 1538, certainly before 1548. All the confirmation regulations of the 16th and 17th centuries, with the exception of the Pomeranian of 1565, were influenced by that of Hesse (Mennonitische Blätter, 1912, 43). Even the confirmation liturgy in the English Book of Common Prayer is obviously a result of Bucer's authoritative influence.
In the Protestant liturgies published in Hesse before Bucer's disputation with the Anabaptists there are no directions for confirmation. Instructions on confirmation with public confession before the church are not found until 1543, in a liturgy which Ott Heinrich as regent of Pfalz-Sulzbach introduced after the Reformation there (Lamb, 97 ff.).
In many places the authorities hesitated to follow Hesse's example. Voices were heard for and against confirmation. In the Wittenbergische Reformation (liturgy) of 1545, which was signed by Luther, Bugenhagen, Cruciger, Maier, and Melanchthon, it is urged that "this would be very necessary in all the churches, to hold the catechism on certain definite days, to instruct youth in all the necessary articles of Christian doctrine. For this purpose confirmation might be established, namely when a child has reached an accountable age, to hear his confession publicly, and to ask whether he would remain in this one godly doctrine and church, and offer a prayer after the confession and consent with the laying on of hands. This would be a useful ceremony, not only for appearance, but rather for the preservation of true doctrine and pure understanding, and useful for good discipline" (Sehling I, 211).
More definite are the instructions in the liturgy of Henry IV of Reuss, of 30 August 1552: "Instead of confirmation, the youth should be industriously trained in the catechism on fast days, and those who are capable of receiving the worthy sacrament of the communion of Christ should be given it on Maundy Thursday and then be regarded as confirmed Christians" (Sehling II, 156). Open confession before the church is required in the Palatine liturgy of 1563, the Pomeranian of 1573, that of Hohenlohe of 1577, and of Mecklenburg of 1602. In Mühlhausen, Thuringia, Superintendent Sebastian Starcke raised the question with the clergy (about 1574) whether children should be given a public examination before admission to communion. It was negatively answered as “inopportune" at the moment (Sehling II, 336). The introduction of confirmation took longest in Hamburg; not until 1832 was it adopted there.
In the discussion on infant baptism between Hans Denck and Johann Bader in Landau, Bader agreed with Denck that the compulsory baptism of infants against the wishes of the parents would be of no avail. He considered infant baptism of value only if the children were made aware of the meaning of their baptism when they reach the age of understanding; it was of no value unless the parents "train and instruct their children at the right and proper time, of the meaning of their baptism and the teachings of Jesus and do this as faithfully and as earnestly as they have previously hastened with baptism. For if this does not occur, the parents sin against God and the children, and it would be much better to dispense with baptism if this is not done." Bader is here obviously showing that most people die without having learned "what Christian baptism is and to what end a man can use his baptism" (Chr. Hege, Täufer, 17).
"In Württemberg Hochstetter's demand for the institution of confirmation does not cease after 1692 until its introduction is recognized as being essential in the struggle with separatism in 1721" (G. Bossert in his discussion of Chr. Kolb's Die Anfänge des Pietismus und Separatismus in Würt¬temberg, Theol. L.Z. 1902, col. 622).
It was the great service of Pietism and especially Philip Jakob Spener to deepen youth instruction and make it more meaningful and to urge a personal experience of grace for the one confirmed. The subjective element comes further into the foreground. The children were to enter consciously into the covenant which God made with them at their baptism. Likewise also the Moravians placed the emphasis on a renewal of heart, whereby the child, having reached understanding, could renew his baptismal covenant.
The influence of Anabaptism on the development of Protestant confirmation is today openly admitted. Besides Wilhelm Diehl, E. P. Hansen has also expressly pointed out these connections.
For us it is important to make it clear that confirmation, as H. van der Smissen says, "was originally to serve as a church institution created to meet Anabaptist demands—it was a step in the direction of the center of their concept of the church—and to make their demands invalid. These demands are today recognized as justified in ever-expanding circles, namely the need for the individual Christian's conscious determination and will to accept Christ as Lord and to follow Him, come what may. This determination made of our fathers the courageous witnesses and martyrs whom the world today recognizes and praises" (Mennonitische Blätter, 1912, 52).
During the period of Rationalism (18th century), confirmation lost much of its original meaning. Men like Stöcker and Mahling very earnestly pointed out the harm done, which gradually came to light and which loudly called for a thorough revision of the practice. This has, however, not been done. Confirmation remains an imperfect substitute for adult baptism.
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 686-688. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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