This is a reprint from October 2019, updated for 2022.
On June 5 we will celebrate the Rite of Confirmation for ten high school students, our first class since preCOVID times. This is one of the banner days in our church year, and a milestone for young people and their families!
The call and challenge to pass on the faith to the young is not a new struggle in church history. Hans Wiersma of Augsburg College writes, “Confirmation has a long and complicated history; from a time of instruction in the early church to a sacrament in the medieval church, to Christian education for youth in the modern church.”
Martin Luther, never one to mince words, once called Confirmation “that monkey business!” Rather than scandalize or perhaps bore you with the historical context of that name-calling, let’s instead look at what has been called the ‘nine lives’ – or understandings – of Confirmation that have carried weight over the years in the Lutheran Church. Which of the following have most influenced our own thoughts about Confirmation?
1. Confirmation as Preparation for the Lord’s Supper.
Still prevalent in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, this view sees Confirmation as instruction culminating with First Communion and full participation in the congregation’s worship.
2. Confirmation as Catechism Instruction Straight-up.
Favored by Luther and his closest partners, this view emphasizes the education of children – and parents – throughout the entirety of childhood, not necessarily culminating in a stand-alone rite or ceremony.
3. Confirmation as a Vow of Obedience to Christ.
The emphasis here is on one’s solemn willingness to submit to Christ as Lord and to the discipline of the church and its pastors.
4. Confirmation as a Sacrament.
Here, the ritual laying on of hands by the pastor is understood to confer a spiritual gift, or at least a reawakening of the Spirit. This view is close to the Roman Catholic understanding of Confirmation as a sacrament separate from and additional to baptism.
5. Confirmation as a Personal Conversion.
This mode places special importance upon personal transformation as the renewal of baptism quickens the heart of faith. This piety seeks to “bring the head into the heart” of the Christian faith.
6. Confirmation as a Completion of Baptism.
Here, baptism is understood to have been incomplete until the age of reason and further instruction of the child.
7. Confirmation as a Ratification of Baptism.
Similar to #6, this view understands Confirmation as a publicly necessary way to demonstrate that baptism “took.” Here, baptism was complete in itself, but its ongoing effectiveness needs to be shown. This understanding lies behind our hymnal’s renaming of Confirmation as “Affirmation of Baptism.”
8. Confirmation as a Period of Discovery.
More modern and open-ended, this view of Confirmation envisions a period of time to explore not only the content of Christian faith, but also to engage in self-understanding, civil service, spiritual practices, etc. This approach may or may not culminate in a rite or ceremony.
9. Confirmation as a Culturally Embedded Rite of Passage.
This may be the most common view of Confirmation, one in which the milestone is so ingrained in the community it would take determination not to do it. An example of this can be found in countries like Germany or Norway where the rate of Confirmation far exceeds the rate of ongoing church attendance in adulthood. And this is truly not just an ‘Old World’ phenomenon!
I hope this brief tour was at least thoughtprovoking! In the end, we give thanks to God for naming our confirmands beloved sons and daughters in baptism. We trust in God who has promised great things and confirmed these promises through the ongoing gift of Christ Jesus for us!
Peace be with you, Pastor Tom