Confirmation or Chrismation?

This is the fourth in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  The previous post in the series is here.

One of the significant differences between the “Western” Churches (Roman Catholic, Anglican) and their “Eastern” counterparts (Orthodox, Chalcedonian and otherwise) is the varying practice of what is done to Christians after baptism. In the East, chrismation, or the anointing with oil, is performed immediately after baptism, while in the West confirmation, or the laying on of hands, is done some time afterwards. So what, or why, is there a difference?

Needless to say, Cyril, as an Eastern prelate, performs chrismation, and describes it to his now baptised and chrismated pupils as follows:

And to you in like manner, after you had come up from the pool of the sacred streams, there was given an Unction , the anti-type of that wherewith Christ was anointed; and this is the Holy Ghost; of whom also the blessed Esaias, in his prophecy respecting Him, said in the person of the Lord, The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me: He has sent Me to preach glad tidings to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1). (XXI, 1)

That “unction” was anointing with oil, and in fact Cyril describes a first unction before baptism as well. And anointing after baptism wasn’t a strictly Eastern practice either: Tertullian describes it as well:

After this, when we have issued from the font, we are thoroughly anointed with a blessed unction,— (a practice derived) from the old discipline, wherein on entering the priesthood, men were wont to be anointed with oil from a horn, ever since Aaron was anointed by Moses. Whence Aaron is called “Christ,” from the “chrism,” which is “the unction;” which, when made spiritual, furnished an appropriate name to the Lord, because He was “anointed” with the Spirit by God the Father; as written in the Acts: For truly they were gathered together in this city against Your Holy Son whom You have anointed. (Acts 4:27) Thus, too, in our case, the unction runs carnally, (i.e. on the body,) but profits spiritually; in the same way as the act of baptism itself too is carnal, in that we are plunged in water, but the effect spiritual, in that we are freed from sins. (On Baptism, 7)

So how did the divergence in practice of chrismation and confirmation come about? And what does this mean for those of us who are spectators to the dispute?

The first thing necessary in this debate is to discard the Roman Catholic practice of referring to Eastern chrismation as “confirmation.” The fact is that the two practices, although they have common origins, have divergent theologies, and understanding the difference is crucial in analysing their significance.

The simplest way to explain this is to look at the different Biblical typology of each. Eastern baptism in general has as its Biblical type Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Cyril is very emphatic about the importance of this event and the baptiser:

Baptism is the end of the Old Testament, and beginning of the New. For its author was John, than whom was none greater among them that are born of women. The end he was of the Prophets: for all the Prophets and the law were until John (Matthew 11:13): but of the Gospel history he was the first-fruit. For it says, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, etc.: John came baptising in the wilderness. You may mention Elias the Tishbite who was taken up into heaven, yet he is not greater than John: Enoch was translated, but he is not greater than John: Moses was a very great lawgiver, and all the Prophets were admirable, but not greater than John. It is not I that dare to compare Prophets with Prophets: but their Master and ours, the Lord Jesus, declared it: Among them that are born of women there has not risen a greater than John (Matthew 11:11): He says not “among them that are born of virgins,” but of women. (III, 6)

Chrismation, thus, has as its type the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove after Jesus’ baptism, as we saw earlier, with the oil anointings from the Old Testament thrown in for good measure. It’s worthy of note that Cyril is very solicitous to avoid an adoptionistic interpretation of Jesus’ baptism, which is more than one can say about many contemporary preachers.

Having been decoupled (in time at least) from baptism, confirmation has more complex origins, and is still a topic of perplexity today, as this discussion evidences. If we look for Biblical origins of a rite such as this, however, we’re pretty much forced to consider the receptions of the Holy Spirit as described in the Book of Acts. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer did this in including Acts 8:14-15 as an epistle. But this idea is not upheld by many advocates of confirmation, which begs an important question: just what, to these people, is the significance of this rite?

Noting this difference, however, brings up another topic that has generated an enormous amount of controversy over the years: when do Christians receive the Holy Spirit? If we look at the two rites on their face, chrismation tells us that Christians receive the Holy Spirit at baptism and that’s it. On the face of it, that puts the Orthodox in league with the Baptists, who have argued against a subsequent reception of the Spirit for many years.

On the other hand, confirmation speaks of a subsequent reception of the Spirit, and a sacramental one at that. Those who believe that God’s grace are channeled primarily through the sacraments, however, are forced to argue that confirmation is the sacramental encapsulation of the subsequent receptions of the Holy Spirit documented in Acts. This turns the rite into an ersatz baptism of the Holy Spirit.

A more reasonable analysis of both of these rites would be facilitated by observing that the question, “When do Christians receive the Holy Spirit?” is really the wrong question to ask. Such a question assumes that the Christian life is a static business whose course and outcome are assured by absolute assurance. That assumption is one of the cornerstones of Reformed theology, an assumption that has snuck into other parts of Protestant Christianity while no one was looking. Under that scenario, one is saved, and that’s it.

However the New Testament doesn’t support that kind of concept of the Christian life:

For whereas, considering the time that has elapsed, you ought to be teaching others, you still need some one to teach you the very alphabet of the Divine Revelation, and need again to be fed with ‘milk’ instead of with ‘solid food.’ For every one who still has to take ‘milk’ knows nothing of the Teaching of Righteousness; he is a mere infant. But ‘solid food’ is for Christians of mature faith–those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish right from wrong. Therefore, let us leave behind the elementary teaching about the Christ and press on to perfection, not always laying over again a foundation of repentance for a lifeless formality, of faith in God– teaching concerning baptisms and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and a final judgement. Yes and, with God’s help, we will. (Hebrews 5:12-6:3)

Christian life is all about growth. I doubt there are many Christians out there who would seriously argue that the believer is totally bereft of the Holy Spirit before either their sanctification (if they follow a true Wesleyan concept) or the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been there even before they were reborn. After that the unified Godhead has come in, but his work is active and progressive in the life of the believer. That’s the whole message of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and that in turn is not an end to growth either. But the whole concept of growth is why John Wesley had to untether Christian thought from its tight Reformed mooring in order to set the stage for what has happened during the last century.

And, of course, the true purpose of the baptism in the Holy Spirit should be noted here as well, which puts many things in a new light:

But you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit shall have descended upon you, and shall be witnesses for me not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

So where does that leave us with chrismation vs. confirmation? Some will argue otherwise, but I think that the greater weight of the evidence is towards chrismation immediately after baptism. Why? Because confirmation attempts to sacramentalise something that cannot (or more precisely should not) be restricted to a certain ceremony, but is a part of the believer’s daily walk with God. There is little argument that the Holy Spirit comes in at the time of a person’s coming to Christ, and baptism is certainly a part of that.

And besides, anointing someone immediately after baptism is way cool.

3 Replies to “Confirmation or Chrismation?”

  1. Not much to comment on here, but I will say that I see confirmation and chrismation as equivalent (Confirmation within Roman Catholicism is conducted by anointing as well). Throughout history, the laying on of hands and anointing are often closely associated in various ways, sometimes together, sometimes separately. Further, the East has not been so strict about administering chrismation only cone. For example, someone baptized and chrismated previously who leaves the Church and then comes back will be chrismated again upon return.

    I of course advocate administering chrismation/confirmation immediately after baptism,followed by first holy communion. I would point out that this pattern is based, not only on Acts, but upon Jesus’ baptism as well. He comes up out of the water and Holy Spirit descends upon him. This pattern is followed in the location of the Invocation of the Holy Spirit in Eastern Rite Eucharistic prayers, after the words of institution and the anamnesis/oblation.

    A P.S. on one of your previous posts: you did, if I read you correctly, endorse the apostolic succession of bishops?


  2. Re the apostolic succession, I elucidated my position here:

    “IMHO, the apostolic succession churches were the “original plan,” so to speak. But their failure to effectively challenge their flocks to experience the radical transforming power of the risen Saviour–which is essential to eternal life–led to the raising up of other groups which would do the job.”

    That “failure of effectively challenge” really got underway in the last years of the Roman Empire and beyond. One immediate reaction to that was the ascetic/monastic movement.

    I also made a comment relative to the topic of bishops and prophets that is relevant to the apostolic succession:


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