For about a century now, a
lively debate has continued in Anglican circles over the relation
between baptism and confirmation, especially as to which of these
sacraments can be said to mediate the Spirit, and in what sense. G. W.
H. Lampe traces this controversy back to the Anglo-Catholic revival and
names F. W. Puller (What is the Distinctive Grace of Confirmation?
1880) as an early proponent of the view that water baptism is merely
preparatory to the Spirit baptism received at confirmation. A. J. Mason
(The Relation of Confirmation to Baptism, 1890, 1891) continued
this line of thought. W. Bright ("Morality in Doctrine" in Divine
Sealing, 1892) and A.T. Wirgman (The Doctrine of Confirmation
considered in Relation to Holy Baptism as a Sacramental Ordinance of the
Church, 1897) sought to refute this thinking, linking the reception
of the Spirit instead to baptism. Dom Gregory Dix (" Confirmation or the
Laying on of Hands?" Theology, Occasional Papers No.5, 1936;
The Theology of Confirmation in Relation to Baptism, 1946) revived
the debate a generation later, upholding the Puller-Mason position. L.
S. Thornton (Confirmation Today, 1946) echoed this view. Lampe's
own work The Seal of the Spirit (1951, 1967) is a rejoinder to
the position of Puller, Mason, Dix, and Thornton.
On our side of the
Atlantic, the debate would
seem to have been settled by a post-1979 consensus that water baptism is
full Christian initiation, conferring the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yet
the issue is still a live one. As recent participation in a diocesan
commission on Christian initiation showed me, the meaning of
confirmation is now far from clear. For instance, one study document
first states that “Confirmation in no way completes Baptism,” but then a
single page later we read “Adults baptized [i.e., as adults] in
the Episcopal Church should not be ‘confirmed.’ For adults, Baptism is a
mature profession of faith, an act complete in itself.” But for infants,
it is not complete after all? This apparent contradiction stems, I
think, not from any confusion on the writer's part, but rather from
confusion inherent in the rather inchoate understanding of confirmation
in the Episcopal Church today.
Another relevant area of
debate and discussion in our circles these days is that of the
Episcopalian charismatic renewal. Its advocates have approached the
question of Spirit-reception from a fresh perspective, after
experiencing the “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” under Pentecostal
influence. These newly awakened Christians, innocent for the most part
of the debates of decades gone by, have had urgent cause to reexamine
the question of the relation of Spirit baptism to water baptism and
In the wake of all this
rethinking of the rite of confirmation and the charisma of the Holy
Spirit, I believe yet another exploration of the issues is justified. In
what follows, I will restrict myself to a consideration of New Testament
texts, especially from Luke-Acts. Space limitations make any more
ambitious agenda impossible, and, besides, the issue seems rooted here.
Lampe's treatment is mostly taken up with interpretation of patristic
sources, as were most of those books he seeks to refute. But it becomes
clear from Lampe's book that the belief in confirmation as the initial
imparting of the Spirit after baptism, the position Lampe himself
rejects, was both early and widespread, though not universal, in the
ancient church. Lampe is concerned to show that that position cannot be
the original and must have arisen within Gnostic circles and somehow
spread widely through orthodoxy. He is forced to conclude this because
he cannot find the position in the New Testament. If he could, all would
look different. So Lampe’s whole discussion, as any discussion must,
turns finally upon the New Testament evidence: if the
Puller-Mason-Dix-Thornton position is to be found in the New Testament,
then its early presence in the church may be viewed as the continuation
of apostolic practice (at least of one variety of apostolic
practice, if we keep in mind that not all even of the earliest
Christians need have agreed on the matter any more than modern
Christians, even modern Anglicans, do).
Luke and the Laying
on of Hands
As we begin, it is crucial
to keep in mind a cardinal principle of modern New Testament study: we
must let Luke speak with his own voice. We cannot interpret Luke in the
light of what Paul or John may say on the same subjects. Some are
tempted to do so because of the fundamentalist theological bias that all
scriptural writers must speak with one mind and even use the same
terminology with the same connotations, e.g., as if "baptism with the
Spirit" must mean the same thing wherever it is used. 1 Others, perhaps
under the influence of the so-called Biblical Theology Movement of the
50s and 60s, assume that early church teaching was monolithic, and thus
Luke cannot have taught an understanding substantially different from
Paul's.2 Rather, any uniformity discerned among the New Testament
writers must be established inductively after we see what each in
fact says and seems to mean on his own terms.
It seems to me that Luke
does view water baptism and the laying on of hands as two logically
and chronologically separable stages of Christian initiation, and
that for Luke baptism is a preparatory rite. It has vital significance
in itself inasmuch as it brings the remission of sins. But it
does not bring the Spirit;
it entitles one to the promise of the Spirit, which the baptized person
will subsequently receive through the imposition of hands. Let us
briefly survey the evidence in this light.
Luke, with the other
Synoptics, understands John's baptism as a preparatory rite: it is "a
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3). Those
baptized by John are to look to the future when one mightier than John
"will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (3:16).
So for Luke, John's baptism may form a precedent implying that water
baptism remits sins in preparation for subsequent Spirit-baptism.
In Acts 2, we find Peter
speaking of baptism, in terms recalling John the Baptist, as being "for
the forgiveness of your sins;" it will then entitle the baptized to
share in the same outpoured Spirit of which they have seen the one
hundred and twenty partaking (2:38).
Note that baptism is at once qualified by its immediate result "for the
forgiveness of sins." A secondary result will follow, reception of the
Spirit, as the baptized avail themselves of the promise made to all
generations (v. 39).
The episode of Phillip's
converts in Samaria (Acts 8:5-24) has long vexed scholars. Luke tells us
that Phillip, one of the Seven, preaches the gospel and converts many
Samaritans who have hitherto been followers of Simon Magus. Simon
himself believes, and all are baptized, but they do not receive the
Spirit until Peter and John can be fetched from Jerusalem to lay hands
on them, "for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only
been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (v. 16). Lampe admits that
"In the opinion of most ancient commentators, and of very many modern
writers... the narrative means simply that no one but an apostle could
administer the rite by which the gift of the Spirit was conferred...,
that the rite in question was the imposition of hands with prayer, and
that this sacrament of Confirmation was practised in the apostolic
Church as a regular part of the initiatory ceremony, or, at any rate in
such exceptional cases as that of the Samaritans, as a distinct rite
administered at some time after Baptism.” 3
Lampe himself rejects this
view, seeing the incident instead as a special case of authentication of
the controversial Samaritans' conversion. They were vouchsafed their own
Pentecost at the hands of the original apostles as a special act of
solidarity at a crucial juncture in the progress of the gospel.4
James D.G. Dunn is rather
of the opinion that Luke is portraying the Samaritans as yet unconverted
before the arrival of Peter and John. The poor Samaritans' “reaction to
Phillip was for the same reasons and of the same quality and depth as
their reaction to Simon (cf. vv. 6-8 with 10f.) ... and the
implication is that the Samaritans' acceptance of baptism was prompted
more by the herd-instinct of a popular mass-movement... than by the
self- and world-denying commitment which usually characterized
Christian baptism in the early years.”5 Simon Magus is taken as
representative of the Samaritans' “defective” faith rather than, as the
text clearly implies, an exception to the general rule.
Neither of these plain
evasions of the text can be accepted. Both read far too much between the
lines. Lampe is undoubtedly correct that the presence of Peter and John
to confirm the Samaritan converts serves Luke's agenda of depicting the
early church as a harmonious whole under the watchful supervision of the
Twelve. This is why members of the Twelve must be present: to give
apostolic sanction to the admission of a controversial group. Peter is
on hand in a similar case, that of Cornelius, but the Twelve are not
needed in other cases, like those of the Ephesian disciples or Paul
himself. Thus we cannot say Luke believed the laying on hands per se was
the exclusive prerogative of the apostles.
But it is the appearance of
Peter and John, not the subsequence of the confirmation
that is the unusual point for Luke. Luke gives no sign of anything being
remarkable or extraordinary in baptized persons being yet without the
Spirit. In fact his wording would seem to imply just the opposite. Peter
and John were on their way to impart the Spirit because the Samaritans
did not already have
it, simply because things had not progressed so far: "They had only been
baptized.” Luke clearly seems to imply in these words that baptism would
not by itself impart the Spirit.
Lampe scoffs at the
possibility of such a rite ever being possible given, e.g., the sheer
number of converts on the day of Pentecost, since if Luke saw it as
normative he must have thought it happened then, too.6 One need only
point out that the same objection attaches even to the water baptism of
the three thousand converts. But one need not argue that Luke is
accurately depicting universal early church practice, only that he is
depicting "early catholic" practice as it was (or, more important, as he
wanted it to be) in his own day.
Dunn's case is even more
implausible. He must read in more than Lampe, concluding that for Luke
to say that the Samaritans simply "believed Phillip" must imply mere
intellectual assent instead of a real heart-warming conversion. Dunn
sneers at the "superstitious" credulity of Samaritan faith, based merely
on signs and wonders whether performed by Simon Magus or Phillip. Yet,
ironically, as Dunn himself makes clear elsewhere, 8 Luke himself
regards signs and wonders as adequate grounds for faith and delights in
having his heroes out-miracle their opponents (cf. Acts 13:6-12;
19:11-17). If the Samaritans' faith was defective and superstitious, so
was Luke's. Finally, where is there any "hint in Luke's story that Peter
and John disabused the confused and superstitious Samaritans of their
"sincere and enthusiastic,
but wrongly directed" beliefs?
I must conclude that the
presence of members of the original Twelve is the only extraordinary
feature of the story, and that Luke sees nothing unusual about baptized
Christians only subsequently receiving the Spirit.
In Acts 19:1-7, I believe
we have a paradigm case of Christian initiation as Luke understands it,
since he means to do a side-by-side comparison with the initiation of
the John the Baptist sect, rather in the manner of a modern television
commercial demonstrating how one cleansing product works better than its
competitor on the same stain. Luke's aim is to show that Christian
initiation brings the Spirit, while Johannine initiation does not. This
does not, however, mean that Christian baptism automatically conveys the
Spirit, as we will shortly see.
Some see the Ephesian
disciples encountered by Paul as already being Christian believers of
some type. Some have understood Paul's question "Did you receive the
Holy Spirit when you believed?" as implying that Paul (or Luke) believed
in the possibility that a baptized Christian might yet be without the
Spirit. Of course I am arguing that Luke did in fact think this, but I
do not believe this is how Luke intends Paul's question to be
understood. One need not trouble oneself, as Dunn, for example, does,
over what this question would have implied for Paul.10 We are on safe
ground only when we inquire how Luke intended the question to function
for the sake of the story he is telling. 11
Luke is simply trying to
set up the disclosure, for the reader's benefit, that these Ephesian
“disciples" have not received Christian, but only Johannine, baptism.
Many exegetes insist that
for Luke to call them simply "disciples" without further qualification
must mean he regarded them as Christians. 12 But this is to ignore the
Since Luke will have the true allegiance of these disciples revealed by
Paul's questions in the next two verses, he calls them simply
"disciples" in verse 1 so as not to give away the outcome in advance.
They are revealed soon enough to be disciples of John the Baptist pure
and simple, members of the sect he founded.
Lampe believes they are
already Christians. How can Christians have received only John's
baptism? Lampe lamely suggests that this is Luke's way of describing
baptism in the name of Jesus, but before the Pentecostal effusion
of the Spirit. 13
solution is that the original story depicted Baptist sectarians, but
Luke has transformed them into "embryonic Christians" and made them by
implication (defective) disciples of Apollos (cf. Acts
18:24-28). The point of the
story in chapter 19 would then be that Paul, a faithful delegate of the
Twelve according to Luke, has authenticated the conversion of Apollos'
disciples just as Peter and John had authenticated the conversion of
Philip's Samaritans. 14 If this was Luke's intent, then we would have
another instance of his pattern that Christians receive the Spirit
after baptism through the laying on of hands.
I think, however, that Luke
means the reader to recognize here simply John the Baptist's followers.
He intends the reader to see that Johannine initiation does not confer
the Spirit, while Christian initiation does. Yet it is not baptism per
se which brings the Spirit. Rather, having now been baptized in Jesus’
name, they are in the position to receive the Spirit, which they
do once Paul lays hands on them. Baptizing and laying on of hands are
differentiated here, and it is the latter, not the former, that imparts
The story of Cornelius in
Acts chapter 10 is recognized by all as an exceptional case. Spirit
baptism occurs spontaneously before water baptism, and thus no
imposition of hands is necessary.
The idea is that God
himself must take the initiative in giving Gentiles the Spirit, or his
stubborn human instruments may never get around to it. Only a
demonstration of the Spirit such as usually authenticates Christian
initiation will prove that Gentiles may indeed be initiated.
The story of Paul's
conversion and baptism told in Acts 9:17-18 presents us with an unusual
order of events, but the reason for this is plain. In chapter 9, Ananias
lays hands on Paul to heal him, so that he may have his sight back
before being baptized, but since the same gesture is the one that
imparts the Spirit, both happen simultaneously, so Paul receives the
Spirit before baptism. But notice that the distinction between the two
ritual actions is clearly preserved: in
the laying on of hands brings the Spirit, while in 22:16, the Spirit is
not mentioned, but water baptism is to “wash away your sins.”
One key passage has been
neglected in the course of the confirmation debate: Luke 11:11-13. It is
Luke's redaction of the Q passage, the original reading of which we find
preserved in Matthew 7:9-11. Luke has changed the promise that God “will
give good things to those who ask him” to one whereby he “will give the
Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Now what can we picture as the
Sitz-im-Leben of the pericope as Luke has redacted it? Clearly it is
Christian readers/ hearers who are being encouraged to seek the Holy
Spirit from God who is already their “heavenly Father.” The pericope
clearly presupposes that there is an intermediate period between baptism
and the reception of the Spirit. And Luke encourages such baptized
Christians to seek the Spirit.
I believe Luke even
provided the words with which to seek the Spirit. A. variant in the
Lord1s Prayer found in two miniscules (700, 162) of Luke 11:2 read “Thy
Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us” instead of the familiar “Thy
kingdom come.” If as I believe Streeter convincingly argues, 15 we have
here Luke's original text (itself a redaction of the traditional version
Luke received), then we recognize in the very same chapter both Luke's
encouragement to seek the Spirit and the prayer to be used on that
So far it would seem that
Luke believed the convert receives forgiveness of sins through water
baptism but receives the Spirit through the subsequent laying on of
hands. Many, I believe, cannot bring themselves seriously to consider
this reconstruction of Luke's intent, because whether consciously or not
they have in mind Paul’s decisive statement "Anyone who does not have
the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him" (Romans 8:9b). Was Luke,
then, leaving baptized Christians in a danger zone until they should
receive the Spirit? Our problem here is that we are again confusing Luke
with Paul. Granted, Paul certainly saw possession of the Spirit as
integral to the Christian life, and apparently he saw the Spirit as
conveyed through water baptism.16 But we must let Luke speak with his
own voice. I wish to show briefly that Luke did not assign a salvific
role to the possession of the Spirit.
As Roger Stronstad shows,17
Luke sees the baptism or filling with the Spirit entirely in terms of
the Old Testament background according to which people received the
Spirit with dramatic signs following in order to mark them out as
divinely chosen for some task (e.g., King Saul in 1 Samuel 10:1-10; the
seventy elders in Numbers 11:25-29) or to empower them to fulfill it
(e.g., David in 1 Samuel 16:13; the Judges in Judges 6:34; 11 :29;
13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14; Bezalel in Exodus 28:3; 31:3; 35:31). In every
case, Luke's Spirit reception scenes are so intended. The experiences
of the household of Cornelius, the Samaritans, and the Ephesian
disciples of John are selected by Luke to show reluctant readers the
divine choice of Gentiles and Samaritans as converts or of Christian
initiation as superior to Johannine. The one hundred twenty at Pentecost
and various others afterward are filled with the Spirit in order to
speak the word of God (2:4, 11; 4:8, 31; 6:10).
Luke is concerned with the
spectacular power of the Spirit, not with the salvific indwelling of the
Spirit that we find in Paul. It is evident that for Luke, the reception
of the Spirit is tantamount to prophesying and similar phenomena. Note
how the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost is explained by the citation
of Joel 2:28-32 as an outpouring of prophetic gifts.
Luke also differs from Paul
significantly in that Luke envisions no permanent or constant
possession of the Spirit once received. 18 This appears, first, from
the fact that Peter, filled with the Spirit at Pentecost must later be
filled again to speak the word boldly again (d. 2:4, 11 with
4:8,31). Second, as Acts progresses, it becomes evident that despite all
Christians' initial sharing in the prophetic Spirit, only a few remain
sharers of the Spirit, filling the office of prophet, namely Agabus and
Philip's four daughters (11:27-28; 21:9-11). Only these, despite Acts
2:17f, are called "prophets" or "prophesying virgins."
Luke believed that all
Christians were entitled initially to experience prophecy as a sign of
God’s choice, but not afterwards in most cases. The idea is exactly as
expressed in an Old Testament text that must have loomed large in Luke's
mind, Numbers 11:25:
"Then the LORD... took some
of the spirit that was upon [Moses] and put it upon the seventy elders;
and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But
they did so no more." Afterward Moses muses that it would be
wonderful if God would make all his people prophets in this manner. Luke
believes God has now done this in the Christian Church, but that like
the seventy elders, the prophecy was a one-time occurrence for most.
Our Confirmation Rite
I believe that the debate
over whether baptism or confirmation imparts the Spirit has essentially
been a debate between those who follow Paul's pneumatology and those who
follow Luke's. The debate might be settled by finally choosing one and
rejecting the other, but most of us would rather find a way of
assimilating both. The two cannot and should not be forcibly harmonized
exegetically, but they can quite easily be harmonized
theologically. We might synthesize both Paul and Luke by saying the
indwelling Spirit is received in water baptism, but the empowerment of
the Spirit is received subsequently in confirmation by the imposition of
Does not all this bring us
back to the pre-1979 view, that confirmation does complete baptism? Not
necessarily. Actually this question hinges on a rather fine theological
point. The question might best be put, "does confirmation add new
sacramental grace?" Before 1979, it was believed to do so. Now it is
not. Luke certainly had no such developed theology of the sacraments,
and the validity of the Lucan rite of laying on of hands to receive the
Spirit does not depend on one.
Here is where I believe the
thinking of the Episcopalian charismatic renewal becomes very helpful.
Episcopalian charismatics sought to understand their dramatic experience
of the Spirit in terms of traditional Anglican sacramental theology,
pre-1979. They could see readily that they had, like all charismatics,
experienced something very much like Luke describes in the passages we
have been considering. As good pre-1979 Episcopalians, however, they
knew that confirmation should have been the reception of the
fullness of the Spirit. Had it not worked? They knew a sacrament must
have worked, objectively, even though they had not
experienced the Spirit's fullness on the occasion of confirmation.
So Dennis Bennett and others concluded that the charismatic experience
is not technically a sacrament but rather the subsequent experiential
appropriation of that gift of the Spirit bestowed sacramentally in
Now that the Episcopal
Church has come to view baptism, not confirmation, as the full
sacramental bestowal of the Spirit, I suggest we follow the logic of the
charismatics backwards one step: let us view the laying on of hands in
confirmation as an occasion for experientially, subjectively
appropriating the fullness of the Spirit once received in baptism.
Whether one associates
glossolalia or prophecy with the fullness of the Spirit as some, but by
no means all, Episcopalian charismatics do is irrelevant here. But if we
seek to be faithful to Luke as well as to Paul, we must invest the
laying on of hands at confirmation with an experiential dimension. Let
us prepare young people and adults for the power of the Spirit whether
that power be manifested (as will vary with individual personality) as a
mighty wind or as a still, small voice.
1 John R. W. Stott, The
Baptism & Fullness of the Holy Spirit (Downers Grove: InterVarsity,
1964), p. 23.
2 James D. G. Dunn,
Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Studies in Biblical Theology, Second
Series, No. 15 (London:
1974), 55; G. W. H. Lampe, The Seal of the Spirit (London:
SPCK, 1967), p. 67.
3 Lampe, pp. 66-67.
4 Ibid., p. 72.
5 Dunn, Baptism, pp.
6 Lampe, p. 67.
7 Dunn, Baptism, pp.
8 James D. G. Dunn,
Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), pp. 167-169.
9 Dunn, Baptism, pp.
10 Ibid., p. 86.
11 See the similarly
reader-directed statements in John 2:5 and 11:22, where Jesus’ mother
and Martha of Bethany are not supposed to know of the coming miracles
which, however, their remarks clearly lead the reader to anticipate.
12 Ernst Käsemann, “The
Disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus," Essays on New Testament
Themes. Trans. W.J. Montague. Studies in Biblical Theology No. 41
(London: SCM, 1968),
136; Dunn, Baptism, p. 84.
13 Lampe, p. 76.
14 Käsemann, pp. 147-148.
15 B. H. Streeter, The
Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1951),
16 See Lampe, Chapter One,
"The Pauline Conception of Sealing and its Antecedents," pp. 3-18; Dunn,
Baptism, pp. 103-172.
17 Roger Stronstad, The
Charismatic Theology of St. Luke (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1984), pp.
18 Cf. Lampe: "Luke has an
insufficient appreciation of the Spirit as the inner principle of the
ordinary believer's life in Christ to make him interested in whether or
not the average convert partakes of it." p. 65.
19 Dennis J. Bennett,
Nine O'clock in the Morning (Plainfield: Logos, 1970), pp. 15, 80.
Robert M. Price