23 August 2007

What t'ado about Confirmation

I've had several people ask that I comment on my understanding of "Confirmation," and how I envision its place and purpose in our life together as members of the Church on earth. Fair enough, that's a reasonable request. I don't mind offering my perspective on this question, even though I find the topic rather tedious: partly because the history and theology of "confirmation" have been so convoluted and all over the map, it is difficult to speak with clarity concerning it; and partly because it is a human rite, for which neither Holy Scripture nor Church history have any definitive guidance to offer. There's a history to it, of course, but no real consistency or continuity; mostly accidental developments and after-the-fact interpretations. There's simply no one thing that is "confirmation," but a host of different practices that have been introduced under that term, each of them understood from a different theological perspective.

What first emerged as "confirmation," relatively early in the process of development, originated from an anointing with oil within the baptismal rite. It followed the washing of water with the Word, and preceded the administration of the Holy Communion. One of my dear professors, Dr. James White, used to describe the Holy Communion as the one part of Holy Baptism that was then repeated throughout the Christian life; because, in the early practice of the Church, these three things were all of a piece: Holy Baptism, anointing with oil, and the Holy Communion. Of course, all of this held true for both infants and adults, for anyone who was baptized. From that historical standpoint, therefore, "infant Communion" went hand-in-hand with that original form of "confirmation" as the prerequisite to First Communion. Isn't life strange.

Over time, this "confirmation" (anointing with oil) was separated from the baptismal rite, and the three things that used to be administered together were removed from one another by varying lengths of time. For those who are interested, it isn't that hard to track down this history from a variety of sources. An important point to note, however, is that "confirmation" was invested with a distinct sacramental significance of its own, disconnected from Holy Baptism, and obviously devoid of any divine institution or promise of Christ our Lord. It was for that reason that Dr. Luther had no use for this one of the seven Roman "sacraments." And when it was reintroduced among Lutherans, it took on different connotations altogether.

I'm not going to attempt to track the developments of "confirmation" following the Reformation, but simply give my attention to the sort of rite that we have inherited in our own day. I'm using the LSB rite of confirmation as my specific reference point.

Much of the confirmation rite, as we now have it, functions as a reaffirmation of Holy Baptism. It references that Sacrament in the opening address and again in the "confirmation blessing," but Holy Baptism is especially in view with the renunciations and interrogatory creed that are simply taken over into confirmation from the baptismal rite. Since the significance of Holy Baptism pertains to the entire Christian life and calls for the daily dying and rising of contrition, repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, there's nothing about this aspect of the rite that is unique or distinctive to "confirmation" per se. It is little different than the reaffirmation of Holy Baptism at Epiphany and the Easter Vigil, or the discipline of Lent, for that matter.

The opening address of the confirmation rite also references the catechesis of the Word of Christ that belongs to the making of disciples, and the confession of Christ that proceeds from such catechesis. This is taken up, not only in the confession of the Creed, but in the acknowledgment of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures and of Lutheran doctrine as summarized in the Small Catechism. Beyond that which is already confessed in the baptismal rite itself, therefore, the rite of confirmation assumes a relatively limited body of catechesis (the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Small Catechism). If a young man will later be ordained to the Office of the Holy Ministry, he'll be required to up the ante by swearing allegiance to the entire Book of Concord, but there is no such expectation specified in this case. Thus, as far as the confession of the faith is concerned, the rite of confirmation as we have received it envisions little more than the confession of all the baptized. The rite itself specifies no comprehensive knowledge, much less mastery, of the entire corpus of the Church's doctrine.

It is the next part of the rite that is distinctive and definitive of "confirmation" among Lutherans, that is, the vows and promises to be faithful in the confession and practice of this Lutheran faith even unto death. The confirmand is called upon to swear that enemies of the faith will have to pry it out of his cold dead fingers before he'll ever give it up. It is that oath and commitment that characterizes "confirmation" as we have received it. Everything else that follows is hardly unique to this rite. Even the "confirmation blessing" is simply a recalling of Holy Baptism and its gifts. The "confirmation verse" is a special touch, but not so very different, finally, than what a pastor might do for his catechumens in a variety of other circumstances; it is primarily invested with significance and meaning because of the occasion of "confirmation." The final prayer of thanksgiving and intercession for the confirmand(s) is nothing other than what the Church does for all her members on a regular basis. No, it is the public swearing of allegiance to Lutheran doctrine and practice, on one's very life, that defines "confirmation" for us. It is for this reason that I am not in favor of tying "confirmation" to First Communion, and why I would prefer to reserve the rite of "confirmation" until age 18 or 21.

First of all, despite the fact that "confirmation" is no Sacrament, as the Roman Church believes, it has been invested with a "sacramental" significance by the typical Lutheran practice. At the same time, it has been regarded as the Lutheran equivalent of a "decision for Jesus" and an "altar call" of the first magnitude. Especially when that way of thinking is connected to First Communion, it is no wonder that "confirmation" is viewed primarily as a grand achievement, by which one earns the right to receive the Sacrament of the Altar. All of this obfuscates the fact that both catechesis and the Lord's Supper are divine works and divine gifts, received by grace through faith in Christ, and not by works. It is not the confirmand's efforts or accomplishments that ought to be at the forefront in approaching the Holy Communion, but the mercies of God in Christ. It is not the marvelous display of "memory work," but the gracious and life-giving Word and Spirit of God that ought to be given attention and credit for the blessing given and received.

Second, I do not believe it is appropriate for children who are still under the authority of their parents to be swearing oaths on their own lives. I recognize that the renunciations of Holy Baptism already set even the youngest baptized infant at odds with the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh, which is ultimately no less serious, no less a matter of life-and-death. But not only are those renunciations articulated more passively, they are, as often as not, voiced on the child's behalf by parents, godparents, and the entire congregation. Thus, in Holy Baptism, it is clear that the child is taken into the arms of the Church, and remains especially under the care and protection of father and mother. The oaths and promises of the confirmation rite strike me as being of a rather different sort. They are a mature, adult commitment, which expresses a kind of grown-up "independence." I'm not trying to describe this negatively, but simply to say that, for an adolescent to swear such a thing appears to border on the usurping of the authority of his parents. It seems far more appropriate for such a promise to be made at the point of a young adult's emancipation from his father and mother, whether at the time of high school or college graduation, or at the point of marriage.

I've heard the argument asserted, any number of times, that if confirmation doesn't function as the way and means of admittance to the Holy Communion, then it cannot serve any salutary purpose but is actually inappropriate or wrong. I'm sorry, but I simply do not follow this line of reasoning. Why must confirmation be given some sort of "sacramental" significance in order to be meet, right and salutary within the freedom of the Gospel? Actually, I'm far more leery and concerned about allowing such a man-made rite to have any semblance of sacramental significance! Why not allow it to function, instead, as a rite of passage and, let's go ahead and say it, as a graduation ceremony. What's the problem with that? It does, in fact, mark a step up (a graduation) in the ongoing, lifelong process of catechesis and confession of the faith. We have graduation ceremonies for Lutheran gradeschools, for Lutheran high schools, for Lutheran colleges and seminaries, and I don't recall anyone ever suggesting that such occasions were inappropriate, or insisting that they had to be given "sacramental" connections.

Removing "confirmation," in the form that we have received it, from admittance to the Holy Communion, frees it to function as the rite itself suggests, that is, as an occasion of rejoicing in the catechesis thus far received, as an opportunity to confess the faith once delivered to the saints, and as a fully mature, public commitment to continue steadfast in this faith and confession until death. At 18 or 21 years of age, the confirmand is more adequately prepared to make such a confession and commitment, and does so more appropriately, than at the end of eighth grade. Ideally, I'd love to see catechumens in formal catechesis classes from age six until eighteen, and then stand up to swear that they'll continue to be catechized and to confess the faith for the rest of their lives within the life of the Church on earth. In the meantime, their catechesis and confession, as well as their Christian faith and life, are served and supported by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. And there is no hint that this Holy Supper is their rightful mead for a job well done, but rather is a medicine of immortality and the life-giving Bread from heaven by which the Lord sustains them on their journey through the wilderness by His grace.

I don't know if that answers the questions that have been posed to me on "confirmation," but that is my thinking out loud about the topic for the time being.


William Weedon said...

Dear Pastor Stuckwisch,

I confess that I appreciate much of what you have written, but I do not agree with the notion that children are too young to make such promises living under their parents. This is where our Lord's words come in about him who loves father or mother more than me... I would have (and will have) no compunction asking the death questions to little ones. We remember how in some of the accounts of the early martyrs parents pleaded with their children to spare them this shame and agony and the children refused in order to honor their Jesus, even with their blood. Even when they are "under their parents" children still give their first allegiance to our Lord, no?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Of course, Brother Weedon, you are correct that children must be willing to forsake even father and mother in deference to Christ. I preached that very thing this past Sunday, because of our Lord's Word concerning the divisions He brings within households and families.

However, is it not the exceptional circumstance when a Christian child is confessing the faith at odds with his father and mother? I know it happens, but I don't believe that is the norm among eighth-grade confirmands, and even less so among younger children.

It simply strikes me as an oath that ought not to be required of a young child, whose life is not his or her own to do with as he or she would please. Allegiance and faithfulness to Christ means and requires, rather, in almost every circumstance, honoring father and mother. And most children are supported and assisted by God to remain faithful especially by the care and catechesis of their parents.

In my own experience, what I have found is that older confirmands, those who are already adults, are making these oaths and commitments with a whole different level of understanding than a young child is even capable of having. While I don't believe that difference in maturity ought to be a factor in preparedness to receive the gifts, I do think it is a pertinent factor in swearing such a promise.

When it comes right down to it, what is the necessity of making such an oath? If it is simply the commitment that every Christian necessarily has, for the sake of Christ, then why turn it into such a singular, once-in-a-lifetime occasion? But if there is going to be such a point in the course of one's life, then I believe that such an oath is better and more appropriately made at the time of adult maturity, rather than the onset of adolescence and puberty.

It seems to me that my point is not so different than the sense of the early church, by which they (regrettably) put off Holy Baptism until after the wild oats of youth had been sown. That was misguided for a number of reasons, but the sensibility was not necessarily so far removed from the realities of life in this world. What I am suggesting pertains, not to the Holy Sacraments of our Lord Jesus Christ, which are gifts to be received in faith and with thanksgiving, but to a human invention that has taken on a life and a significance of its own.

Consider that the historic order of Baptism-Confirmation-Communion did not originate with anything like the rite of confirmation we have received and know as Lutherans. It was simply the anointing with oil that was done following the Baptism with water. So, along with my uneasiness about having little children make such an explicit oath on their own lives, I am perhaps even more leery of tying the reception of the Lord's Supper to such a promise. In truth, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ does tie one to His death. The early martyrs had a keen sense of that; I'm thinking especially of Ignatius and Polycarp, for example. But it is one thing to receive that significance, and another thing to lay hold of it for oneself. That strikes me as similar to those who went looking to be martyred, handing themselves over (and then, as often as not, caving in at the moment of crisis), rather than simply letting things come as they would and proceeding quietly in faith. Does that make more sense, perhaps?

Thanks for your comments, my dear friend and brother. Your insights and perspective are always valued.

William Weedon said...

One last thought before hitting the hay:

I HATE the promises!

Luther's rite of ordination and of marriage are remarkably devoid of them. Instead there is prayer and trust in the promises of God. I have always thought that even with "by the grace of God" attached to the confirmation promises they shift the attention to exactly where it doesn't belong. I'd have done the rite differently with the stress on the prayer for strengthening and the laying on hands/anointing. So, while I do think the children are capable of such promises, I do not think over all that retaining this laundry list of promises was a good thing. My $.02 on the topic. ;)