Introduction to the Hillenbrand Classics Edition
If you have ever wondered what confirmation means, where it comes from, why adolescents are confirmed, why infants may be confirmed, why catechumens are confirmed at their baptism, why bishops are the ministers of confirmation, why priests are sometimes, why there is so much variety in the way confirmation used to be done then and in the way it is done now – you are not alone. These questions have plagued the church for generations.
For example, in the second and third centuries bishops anointed neophytes immediately after their baptism in Rome, but initiates were anointed before baptism in Syria during the same period. In the sixth to the eighth centuries, priests were confirming the baptized in Gaul, Italy, Great Britain and Spain, but church authorities kept reasserting that confirmation belonged to bishops. Throughout the middle ages, the church tolerated different sequences of rituals: Some infants received baptism, confirmation and communion in the same ceremony, but others received communion at their baptism and had their confirmation postponed to a much later date. In the nineteenth century, several church councils required communion before confirmation, including the councils of Tours (1849), Avignon (1849), Sens (1850), Rouen (1850), Auch (1851), Prague V (1860), Mende (1863), and Utrecht (1865). But in 1897 Pope Leo XIII praised the placement of confirmation before first communion. In 1952 the Roman Catholic bishops of the world were told they had no authority to defer all confirmations beyond the age of seven. But by the late twentieth century the confirmation of adolescents had become quite common in the Roman Church, and the circumstances when priests were permitted to confirm had multiplied.
J. D. C. Fisher was not the first to explain the historical development of confirmation. But he was the first to do it in a way that was scholarly, readable, and gently opinionated. Confirmation Then and Now first appeared in 1978 as Alcuin Club Collections No. 60, published by S.P.C.K. in London.
Fisher wrote this book not just to resolve pastoral dilemmas or to fill a slot in the Alcuin Club’s fine series of monographs. The publication of Confirmation Then and Now followed a near century-long controversy among Anglican theologians over the meaning of this ritual. A. J. Mason (1851-1928) contended that the gift of the Holy Spirit was not received until confirmation (London: The Relation of Confirmation to Baptism, 1893). Gregory Dix (1901-1952) agreed from ancient liturgical sources that confirmation had a significance distinct from baptism (Confirmation, or Laying on of Hands? [London: S.P.C.K., 1936]). G. W. H. Lampe (1912-1980) countered from systematic theology that baptism constituted Christian initiation, and other ceremonies, including confirmation, did not relate to the seal of the Holy Spirit (The Seal of the Spirit [London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1951]). Discussions emanating from the work of these and other theologians influenced the conferences and prayer books of the Anglican Church for decades.
Fisher entered this fray in 1978 with an effort that updated the debate with an assemblage of historical data, intelligently arranged and straightforwardly explained. Never a completely dispassionate historian, Fisher let his faith in God and zeal for the Holy Spirit shine through every page.
This explains the outline of Fisher’s book, which moves from early non-biblical evidence through a survey of African, European and near-Eastern regions in the third and fourth centuries, before exploring the emergence of the ritual called “confirmation” in fourth and fifth century Gaul. He then leaps across the ages to the more recent discussions in the Anglican communion about the confirmation liturgy. He is reaching out both as historian and as pastor, as researcher and as mediator. Even though his work aimed to shed light on a particular issue among Anglicans, his research helped all other Christians churches examine their present confirmation policies in light of the past. As the Roman Catholic Church was implementing its revised liturgical rites after the Second Vatican Council, Fisher’s research helped many educators clarify why things were going to be different.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Fisher’s book is referenced in works as academic as Manfred Hauke’s Die Firmung: Geschichtliche Entfaltung und theologischer Sinn (Paderborn: Bonifatius, 1999), and as practical as Robert L. Browning and Roy A. Reed’s Models of Confirmation and Baptismal Affirmation: Liturgical and Educational Issues and Designs (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1995). Hauke includes Confirmation Then and Now in the bibliography of his chapter surveying the history of this ritual (p. 52); Browning and Reed footnote Fisher’s book in the pages of their opening chapter, which summarizes the historical backdrop to contemporary models of celebration (pp. 9-11). Even as the history of confirmation continues to be rewritten, one cannot avoid dealing with Fisher’s work. Aidan Kavanagh says the literature interpreting the origins of confirmation is “extensive and contentious.” He criticizes the methodology of Dix, who inspired some scholars in turn to “search for confirmation in other early liturgies and patristic sources,” where he footnotes Fisher (Confirmation: Origins and Reform [New York: Pueblo, 1988], p. 41).
As a new generation of readers opens Confirmation Then and Now, they will be struck by how now has become then again. The breadth of Fisher’s research is invigorating, but the intervening years have brought to light additional research in the history of confirmation, expanding the field of sources. Paul F. Bradshaw, Maxwell E. Johnson and L. Edward Phillips completed an extensive commentary on the document that gives the earliest account of the structure for what now is called confirmation (The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary, Hermeneia [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002]). Johnson revised and expanded the important collection by E. C. Whitaker, Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003). This writer compiled the evidence for the history of the age of confirmation in Ages of Initiation (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000). Researchers now treat sources with more skepticism than Fisher permitted. The works cited by Kavanagh and Bradshaw, for example, are more cautious to treat sources individually, facing honestly the limits of what each can say, rather than deducing hopefully from many sources a pattern that may not exist from one century to the next or one region to the next. Fisher appears to operate from the premise that confirmation will be found in the earliest of sources if one has the proper access and faith. He would need more evidence to satisfy the researchers of a later generation. Still, his zeal for the subject is captivating, and readers will enjoy his search for the origins of confirmation as they follow this Sherlock on the lookout for clues. A careful study of the history of confirmation today will need more than this book, but it will not proceed far without it.
The intervening years have also brought dramatic changes in pastoral practice. The resuscitation of the catechumenate in many mainstream Christian Church bodies has raised the celebration of confirmation to a new level of interpretation and inspired critical thinking on its purpose as an initiation rite in ways unthinkable in Fisher’s day. Pierpaolo Caspani incorporated the questions about confirmation in his massive study of initiation, La Pertinenza teologica della nozione di iniziazione cristiana (Milan: Glossa, 1999). The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults says the conjunction of confirmation and baptism at the Easter Vigil “signifies the unity of the paschal mystery, the close link between the mission of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the connection between the two sacraments through which the Son and the Holy Spirit come with the Father to those who are baptized” (215). The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists confirmation among the sacraments of initiation. In a typical Catholic parish, people have become accustomed witnessing the celebration of confirmation at their Easter Vigil every year. Additional work on confirmation today will import a broader range of experience than Fisher was able to know.
Christian churches today still revise their confirmation ceremonies. The Catholic Church in particular permits a wide range of ages and occasions for this sacrament. The meaning of the rite is deeply debated by theologians and parents alike. The structure of the liturgy is determined by authoritative books and subjected to the vagaries of pastoral whim. The unsettled state of confirmation causes an unsettled spirit among those who prepare candidates for it. But with Fisher at their side, they have the reassurance that – both in its variety and in its simplicity – the practice now resembles the practice then.
This introduction appears in J. D. C. Fisher, Christian Initiation: Confirmation Then and Now (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2005), pp. iii-vi.