I love the juxtaposition of the Feast of Pentecost with confirmation. Pentecost is the day of tongues of fire, people who had been hiding for fear busting out in front of everyone, and 3000 souls added that day. It also lines up with a secular season of graduations which are those celebrations of something being completed, but something new, that we might not quite yet have defined, starting. A confirmation is probably the first opportunity for people who have been sequestered in a classroom to make a public confession of faith. It is the end of a tutelage. The parents and sponsors at baptism promised to “support them in their ongoing instruction and nurture in the Christian faith and encourage them toward the faithful reception of the Lord’s Supper.” Confirmation is the end of the largest burden of that promise. (Everyone knows a parent can’t teach a teenager anything until dad suddenly gets real smart again around 24. Just kidding, kinda.) But unlike the joke about how you get rid of the pests that have taken residence in the church (“confirm them”), a proper understanding of confirmation is the start of personal responsibility in the life of faith.
Now we Lutherans inherited confirmation as a sacrament from the Old Western Church. The Eastern church confirms (they call it chrismation which is anointing with oil) at the same time as someone is baptized in a “double sacrament.” But the oldest tradition of confirmation was that the Bishop – the person responsible for teaching the faith – did the confirmation. As the number of Christians and confirmations grew, getting that one guy around became tougher. The Eastern Churches created the bishop’s oil for the chrismation to maintain some place for the bishop, but the pastors took on the job. The Western churches separated baptism and confirmation to get the bishop to all of them and thus put more of an emphasis on continuity of that teaching. Rome today will confirm around 3rd grade for those baptized as infants. And to be fair, the Roman biblical argument stems from Acts 8:14-17, which other than missing the institution of Christ himself, is a stronger basis than this confessional Lutheran might have naively thought. The churches of the Reformation have done their own things with this rite. Most of them insist upon the unity of the pastoral office (i.e. a pastor is a bishop, a bishop is a pastor) so that worry is out the window. Most of them really liked teaching, and they rejected any biblical institution of a sacrament of confirmation that conferred a unique grace, so the age of confirmation was often moved back.
Even the Roman catechism portrays their sacrament as “a perfection/completion of baptismal grace. (CCC 1304, 1316).” At the extreme Protestant end you have the Baptists, which I would argue have turned Baptism – which they only confer upon believer who can profess the name – into confirmation. Confirmation is always connected to the grace of baptism. One confirms their baptism. All this history leads me to two arguments. The first argument is that the sacraments which are means of grace have never really changed form. Baptism has always been and remains water and the Word of God, that word being the Name applied to the baptized to mark him or her as one redeemed by Christ. The Lord’s Supper has always been and remains bread and wine and the Word of God which makes them the very body and blood of Christ. They are God’s sacraments and he has preserved them. The fact that confirmation has had so many forms gives me strong reason to doubt any unique means of grace in it. God loves us too much for that.
The second argument is that this does not make a ritual like confirmation less meaningful. Baptism is complete in itself. What confirmation does is offer the opportunity to confess before others that this grace is mine. What was objectively true in baptism takes on subjective meaning. And what I might argue is that we have made it more restrictive than it needs to be. This might be what the Baptists get right. There are times in our lives of faith where we come to a more mature or deeper-seated faith in Christ. And uniquely, 14 years old might be a terrible time to think you have found that. For them it might be more like that day of graduation. I don’t really know what is happening next. Mom & Dad you are not completely off the hook. But I could imagine a church that held multiple rites of confirmation, that offered a public chance to confess that God has brought me this far by faith and today I recommit to that faith with a better understanding of the grace I have been given.
The questions we ask the 14 year olds are tough. Kinda like marriage vows, you have no real idea what you are committing to when you say “I do, by the grace of God.” Imagine for a second the witness of someone who knows a little more making the same confession. Both have a virtue of their own. The first a pure faith, the second a witness to the hope that does not disappoint.