Friday, April 4, 2008

Confirmation Rites

Does your congregation practice the rite of "confirmation" prior to first communion? This adapted excerpt comes from Frank W. Klos’s book, Confirmation and First Communion, prepared for the Boards of Parish Education of the LCA, LCMS, and ALC, and produced by Augsburg Publishing House, Board of Publication of the LCA, and Concordia Publishing House in 1968.

Confirmation practices are well worth reviewing by pastor and people alike. Why do we do what we do—and what does that have to do with the gospel? While Luther himself did not practice the rite of confirmation, he did not discourage those friends who tried to reform the rite in the light of Protestant standards. Just as he encouraged every literate pastor he knew to prepare catechisms of his own, so he supported, although lukewarmly at times we must admit, the efforts of those who were exploring new ways of guiding youth through the critical periods of adolescence.

Consequently, during the latter years of Luther’s life some attempts were made to develop an evangelical rite. Other experiments followed. Soon there were so many varieties of confirmation being offered in Protestant circles that it was almost impossible to keep a box score. It was like the pickle manufacturer’s fifty-seven varieties. For three centuries, Luther’s followers experimented. Each dukedom and principality in the then-fragmented Germany tried to build practical church orders of confirmation of their own.

Attempting to differentiate among the many suggestions offered is like trying to separate strands of various hues from Joseph’s coat of many colors. However, this is a job we must somehow do. The tangled roots of modern confirmation practices, especially in North America, lie buried in this particular period of church history. For convenience’s sake, six principle forms of confirmation are labeled: catechetical, traditional, hierarchical, sacramental, pietistic, and rationalistic. As we discuss these forms, please realize that our analysis is probably oversimplified. There was much overlapping among the influences and counter-influences that swept back and forth across Europe.

Actually, it would be more proper to speak of the six major emphases rather than six forms or types. It is hard to find specific examples of any of the forms followed in complete isolation from the others. Few congregations used any particular form in a completely pure state. Catechetical The catechetical emphasis stemmed from Luther’s program of education for receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion and for making a good confession, which, for Luther, was the prelude to receiving the sacrament. Under this emphasis, pastors were encouraged to preach an annual series of sermons on the catechism for the entire congregation and to hold special classes for children and servants. The young attended catechetical instruction until their early twenties or until they were married. Older people, especially the unlearned, were also expected to attend these classes.

Luther saw this program as an integral part of the church’s pastoral and educational ministry to its people. It is interesting that children, after they were admitted to the Lord’s Supper, were still expected to continue in their catechetical studies; Luther’s idea of the lifelong educative process was taking hold. There was never a graduation short of eternity. Thus, this type of confirmation was, strictly speaking, really not confirmation at all. That is, it was not a process culminating in a church rite, yet it had perhaps the most influence on subsequent practices.


The term “hierarchical” refers to the governing of a local congregation by its parish clergy and not to the Roman Catholic administrative structure. This accentuated emphasis on disciplinary control came largely through the efforts of Martin Bucer of Heidelberg.

The hierarchical type of confirmation which Bucer recommended received its name because of his insistence that the individual should vow his allegiance to Christ through the church. Besides the Word of God and the Sacraments, Bucer felt that one of the key marks of the true church was discipline. “Where there is no discipline,” he wrote, “there is no congregation.”

The person being confirmed should be asked to testify publicly that he was surrendering himself to Christ, that he was likewise willing to submit himself to the church’s rule for his life. In this way, he would be consciously acknowledging his obligations.

Because of the way Bucer’s contributions show up so frequently in the typical American confirmation patterns, you could call him, as Arthur Repp does, “the father of Lutheran confirmation.” At the same time, however, he complicated the procedure for admitting children to first Communion. He made both confirmation and first Communion the twin goals of catechetical instruction. In so doing, he went far beyond Luther’s understanding that these are but way stations in a lifelong catechumenate.


When Bucer emphasized the laying on of hands in his rite of confirmation as a means of blessing, he had no intention of restoring the Roman Catholic sacramental meanings [i.e., that by being confirmed you get special grace or merit before God]. He stoutly maintained that Baptism was effective and needed no completion. However, there were other Lutherans who followed Bucer’s order and fell into the trap of treating confirmation sacramentally. The prayer of blessing began to include such phrases as “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The implications were evident. Confirmation added things that Baptism could not: the fuller presence of the Holy Spirit, fuller church membership for the candidate.

It should be pointed out immediately that the sacramental emphasis in Lutheran confirmation never existed as an independent type. It was generally hitched on to one or another of the other forms. Many who slammed the front door shut against any interpretation of confirmation as a sacrament went around and opened the back door to allow sacramental notions in. Why? Perhaps they felt that confirmands ought to know that something fine, something exciting was happening to them at confirmation: they were receiving more of the Holy Spirit’s power! Perhaps church leaders thought that this was one way of granting the adolescent more status in the church; he had arrived at a new and higher plateau where he could share more privileges of membership.

The influence of sacramental ideas were quite clearly seen in the practices of both the former ALC and LCA church bodies [forerunners of the ELCA]. The Order for Confirmation in the Service Book and Hymnal (pp. 245–247) uses phrases like “renew and increase in thee the gift of the Holy Ghost” and admittance and participation “in all the spiritual privileges of the Church.” In the Lutheran Agenda of the LCMS, some overtones of the sacramental emphasis also remain, though not as detailed.


The fourth major emphasis in Lutheran confirmation has been labeled traditional for want of a better name. This was simply an attempt in various ways to retain the time-honored elements of the church’s confirmation practices without echoing sacramental overtones. These influences may have come from men like Philip Melanchthon and Martin Chemnitz. Admission to Holy Communion was definitely not a part of the rite as far as Melanchthon was concerned. Apparently, he shared a feeling with a number of his fellow theologians that children who have been instructed in the catechism could be brought by their parents to confession and Holy Communion before they were confirmed. The reason given for this view at a 1548 convention in Celle by a number of church leaders was simply summarized by quoting Jesus, “Let the children come to Me, for such belong to the kingdom of God.”

At the same convention the theologians recommended that somewhere between the ages of 12 to 15, children were at an age when they could better understand their faith and their affirmation. Martin Chemnitz felt that confirmation should not exist in a vacuum: it should reflect links with the apostolic, early Christian church. Therefore, when he had an opportunity to work on the rite, he tried to include elements that stressed Baptism (Luther’s emphasis) and that also included the laying on of hands in a Protestant sense of blessing only (Melanchthon’s emphasis).

As the sixteenth century drew to a close, the four major emphases in confirmation we have considered thus far were in full use in one form or another. Little did people realize that the picture would get even more complicated. Within the next two centuries, two additional emphases would be stressed. Each would present a new problem to the theological foundations of confirmation.


The seventeenth century was a violent time with most of the European nations struggling for supremacy. When a sort of political peace did come, religious wars broke out. Some of the most fierce fighting came during these times. These were the days of Puritans and Pilgrims that grew up within the Anglican church.

Among the Lutheran churches in Germany and Scandinavia came Pietism. Philip Spener and other prominent Pietist leaders saw their task of inspiring people with a sense of true Christianity in two ways. First of all, the church should educate the children for committed spiritual living. Second, the church should provide a significant public ceremony where these children could express their personal willingness to believe in Christian teachings and to live a holy life.

The Pietists considered confirmation as an “act of renewal.” Children were instructed not so much in the objective facts of the faith as they were in their subjective acceptance of Christ as their personal Lord. This suggested some real changes in procedure. Catechetical training was redesigned to prepare the young person for a momentous conversion experience. At confirmation, the young person would publicly declare his surrender to Christ.

In addition, he would renew the baptismal covenant by vowing to keep his part of the covenant with God, as long as he lived. Memory verses were often introduced into the rite. Each confirmand would recite his own choice of a scriptural prescription for Christian living. Lurking behind the scenes of this new confirmation rite was the Pietist feeling that Baptism was not completed until the confirmand himself accepted his role as a child of God.

Thus we can see a shift toward an emphasis on the acts of man (law) rather than on the completed work of God in Christ given as a gift through Baptism (gospel).

Two parts of the Pietists’ emphasis have caused the church headaches ever since. One was the notion of the confirmation as a personalized conversion experience. This easily led to vigorous and often morbid self-examination on the part of the young people.

Some youth learned hypocrisy while others worried needlessly about their worthiness to receive Holy Communion. The other burr under the church’s blanket today is directly related: the idea of confirmation and admission to Holy Communion as end products of education.

As these and other pietistic ideas took hold within the church, Baptism (God’s gift) became less and less important to the Christian and Confirmation (man’s rite) became extremely important. Thus, while attempting to become more spiritual, Pietism became more mundane, emphasizing personal faith from inner experience rather than God’s gifts from external Means of Grace.


Underneath the political and social upheavals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, modern science was being born. The Rationalists or this new Age of Reason believed that there wasn’t anything that a man couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. Christians are still vibrating from this blast.

Rationalism affected communion in many peculiar ways, most of which as it turned out were harmful. First, there was the matter of the confirmand’s role in this rite. Since Pietism had introduced the subjective, personal experience-centered approach, pastors of a rationalistic bent could carry the implications a step further. It became important that the confirmand be able to list the attributes of God, explain the church’s teachings, and prove the existence of God. Catechetical examinations soon became very academic: confirmands crammed for their finals at church in the same way that they did in their academic subjects at school.

Secondly, confirmation became a kind of graduation ceremony from the church’s rigorous educational program. The newly confirmed were now considered adults in the minds of the congregation. All this happened at roughly the same time the children ended their general schooling.

In a number of places in Europe, they even had courses on health to help those who were about to be married. It was not at all odd to have young ladies postponing their confirmation a year or two so that they could use the occasion as a kind of “coming-out” party to announce to the public that they were available for marriage.

Thirdly, rationalistic confirmation also added some surprisingly sentimental by-products. Confirmands dressed in white robes. Girls often carried flowers. At times, cool intellect merged with tear-jerking emotion. In some congregations, the confirmands left the altar during the rite to go to their parents’ pew. There they confessed their sins against mother and father and asked their forgiveness. Not a dry eye in the congregation! With this kind of family solidarity, confirmation grew into a real family festival. Family dinners and home celebrations abounded. Relatives gathered and gifts were given to the newly confirmed to mark their passage into the adult world. Usually, youth were presented with articles of adult clothing—they now were allowed to dress in the fashion of their elders. Watches were also a favorite gift. In areas where Lutheranism was officially adopted as the religion of the state, the tax list and the voting list both came directly from the confirmation records.

Finally, Rationalism severely wrenched the Lutheran teachings, particularly the doctrines of Baptism and the church. Many pastors frankly proclaimed that confirmation was superior to Baptism; some tried to do away with infant Baptism; others considered abolishing Baptism altogether. In any event, there was little doubt that confirmation was absolutely essential to complete Baptism. Quite a far cry from what Luther had intended for confirmation!

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