1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Confirmation

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22258781911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 6 — ConfirmationWinfrid Oldfield Burrows

CONFIRMATION (Lat. confirmatio, from confirmare, to establish, make firm), in the Christian sense, the initiatory rite of laying on of hands, supplementary to and completing baptism, and especially connected with the gift of the Holy Ghost to the candidate. The words “confirm” and “confirmation” are not used in the Bible in this technical sense, which has only grown up since the 5th century, and only in the Western churches of Christendom and in. their offshoots, but the rite itself has been practised in the Church from the beginning. The history of confirmation has passed through three stages. In the first ages of the Church, when it was recruited chiefly by converts who were admitted in full age, confirmation, or the laying on of hands (Heb. vi. 2), followed close upon baptism, and in the majority of cases the two were combined in a single service. But only the highest order of ministers could confirm (see Acts viii. 14-17); whereas priests and deacons, and in an emergency laymen and even women, could baptize. There was therefore no absolute certainty that a believer who had been baptized had also received confirmation (Acts xix. 2). But two circumstances tended to prevent the occurrence of such irregularities. In the first place, there were in early days far more bishops in proportion to the number of believers than is the custom now; and, secondly, it was the rule (except in cases of emergency) to baptize only in the season from Easter to Pentecost, and the bishop was always present and laid his hands on the newly baptized. Moreover, in the third and fourth centuries the infants of Christian parents were frequently left unbaptized for years, e.g. Augustine of Hippo. Later, when the Church had come to be tolerated and patronized by the state, her numbers increased, the rule that fixed certain days for baptism broke down, and it was impossible for bishops to attend every baptismal service. Thereupon East and West adopted different methods of meeting the difficulty. In the East greater emphasis was laid on the anointing with oil, which had long been an adjunct of the laying on of hands: the oil was consecrated by the bishop, and the child anointed or “sealed” with it by the parish priest, and this was reckoned as its confirmation. With its baptism thus completed, the infant was held to be capable of receiving holy communion. And to this day in the Eastern Church the infant is baptized, anointed and communicated by the parish priest in the course of a single service; and thus the bishop and the laying on of hands have disappeared from the ordinary service of confirmation. The West, on the other hand, deferred confirmation, not at first till the child had reached years of discretion, though that afterwards became the theory, but from the necessities of the case. The child was baptized at once, that it might be admitted to the Church, while the completion of its baptism was put off till it could be brought to a bishop. Western canons insist on both points at once; baptism is not to be deferred beyond a week, nor confirmation beyond seven years. And to give an historical example, Henry VIII. had his daughter, afterwards Queen Elizabeth, both baptized and confirmed when she was only a few days old. And still the rubrics of the English Prayer-Book direct that the person who is baptized as an adult is to “be confirmed by the bishop so soon after his baptism as conveniently may be.”

But theologians in the West had elaborated a theory of the grace of confirmation, which made its severance from baptism seem natural; and at the time of the Reformation, while neither side favoured the Eastern practice, the reformers, with their strong sense of the crucial importance of faith, emphasized the action of the individual in the service, and therefore laid it down as a rule that confirmation should be deferred till the child could learn a catechism on the fundamentals of the Christian faith, which Calvin thought he might do by the time he was ten. Many of the Protestant bodies have abandoned the rite, but it remains among the Lutherans (who, whether episcopal or not, attach great importance to it) and in the group of Churches in communion with the Church of England. In the Catholic Apostolic Church (“Irvingites”) confirmation is called “sealing,” and is administered by the “angels” Among the Roman Catholics it is reckoned one of the seven sacraments, and administered at about the age of eight: in many cases less emphasis is laid on the confirmation than on the first communion, which follows it.

At the last revision of the Book of Common Prayer an addition was made to the service by prefixing to it a solemn renewal of their baptismal vows by the candidates; and, in the teeth of history and the wording of the service, this has often been taken to be the essential feature of confirmation. Practically, the preparation of candidates for confirmation is the most important and exacting duty of the Anglican parish priest, as the administration of the rite is the most arduous of a bishop's tasks; and after a long period of slovenly neglect these duties are now generally discharged with great care: classes are formed and instruction is given for several weeks before the coming of the bishop to lay on hands “after the example of the Holy Apostles” (prayer in the Confirmation Service). Of late years there has been a controversy among Anglican theologians as to the exact nature of the gift conveyed through confirmation, or, in other words, whether the Holy Spirit can be said to have come to dwell in those who have been baptized but not confirmed. The view that identifies confirmation rather than baptism with the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit on the Church has had to contend against a long-established tradition, but appeals to Scripture (Acts viii. 16) and to patristic teaching.

Authorities.—Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, book v. ch. lxvi; Jeremy Taylor, A Discourse of Confirmation; A. J. Mason, The Relation of Confirmation to Baptism (London, 1891), where see list of other writers; L. Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien, chap. ix. (Paris, 1898).  (W. O. B.)