Die Firmung: geschichtliche Entfaltung und theologischer Sinn
By Manfred Hauke. Paderborn: Bonifatius Druck Buch Verlag, 1999. Pages, 524. Cloth.
ISBN 3-89710-074-6

If you took all the books written about confirmation and placed them end to end, they’d reach from here to Paderborn. But you’d be hard pressed to find a single one that capably covered history, theology, liturgy, praxis, and ecumenical experience all in one volume. Until now.

Die Firmung by Manfred Hauke, professor of dogmatic theology at Lugano, is a comprehensive investigation of the sacrament of confirmation. The author demonstrates an admirable knowledge of both the academic and the pastoral questions, combined with an enviable grasp of sources ancient and modern, domestic and foreign, Catholic and Christian. He has presented his work intelligibly, having digested an array of references and explained them with prodigious clarity.

The historical survey consumes nearly half the text, and with good reason. The history of confirmation is exceptionally difficult to tell.

No history is unbiased. Hauke reveals his predisposition at once. He takes the company line on the early history of confirmation. The introduction to the Roman Catholic rite by Pope Paul VI and the suggested homily for confirmation assume that the two-step baptism-confirmation complex originated in the apostolic ministry. Hauke’s review of the biblical data reaches the same conclusion: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit customarily followed baptism in a separate ritual administered by apostles. Although some scriptural data support the thesis, it is hazardous to assume that the two-step complex was normative. In addition, Hauke offers no critique that the three-step complex including a baptismal eucharist cannot be traced to the apostolic church.

Historians of confirmation often fall to speculation based on an anachronistic reading of the data. Hauke’s acceptance of a later initiation rite causes him to read the same pattern into the new testament, Tertullian and Cyprian, whose incomplete descriptions are scattered through multiple sources. The author also marginalizes the pre-fourth century Syrian (and Egyptian?) testimony which promoted the anointing prior to baptism. Why should the Syrian experience not be considered as normative as that of the rest of Christendom? Attestation from these early years is scattered and sparse. Not until confirmation split from baptism in the fifth century did Western theologians consistently review the apostolic evidence for scriptural substantiation of their contemporary praxis.

Once the historical survey breaks free from the highly disputable origins of confirmation and enters the realm of the middle ages, Hauke rewards the reader with an expansive presentation of sources. The Gallican councils and liturgical texts, the Spanish sources, the Carolingian treatises, Cabasilas, even the influential but little-treated works of Benedict XIV -- they’re all here. Only in the midst of this material does the reader realize how little of this history has found its way into a single volume.

And there’s more. Hauke then treats the systematic theology of confirmation. Once again, the sheer breadth of topics makes the book invaluable. Anointing, handlaying, signation, formula, sacramental character, gifts of the Holy Spirit -- the author treats them all clearly and capably.

The rest of the book is more hits than misses. Hauke misses the distinction Sacrosanctum concilium 71 makes between confirmation and the sacraments of initiation, and assumes (anachronistically again) that this first work of the council placed confirmation among them. His treatment of the confirmation lectionary is insightful but brief; one wishes for more. His coverage of confirmation in other faith communities contributes to ecumenical dialogue. On a hot button topic he favors a youthful age for reception; that will chagrin some and elate others. He also prefers wider permission for presbyters to confirm.

All in all, this book makes a much-needed contribution to the library of works on the history and theology of confirmation. Readers familiar with the issues will disagree some and rejoice more with this engaging work.

This review first appeared in Worship 74/2 (March 2000):188-190.

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