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Confirmation Controversy

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 confirmation.

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? 9

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 present context. 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

Käsemann's ingenious 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 Spirit.

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 9:17, 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 occasion.


Two Pneumatologies

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 hands.

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 confirmation.19

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: SCM, 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. 63-64.

6 Lampe, p. 67.

7 Dunn, Baptism, pp. 65, 64.

8 James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), pp. 167-169.

9 Dunn, Baptism, pp. 63-64.

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), p. 277.

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. 13-23, 49-75.

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.


 By Robert M. Price


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