24 February 2012

Confirmation & Stuff

OVER AT JESUS CREED, Scot McKnight posted about a "note from a pastor in a denomination that baptizes infants and then proceeds to catechism and confirmation, but this pastor has his doubts." (There are some good thoughts/advice in the comments section over at JC, btw.)

I too responded in the combox, but this issue is one that's near to my heart, having taught such classes for a few years, which teaching challenged me more than any other to date (whoever said "if you can't explain it to children, you don't understand it well enough," was right in my opinion).

The discussion can easily turn into a perspectives match on why—or not—baptism is efficacious (covenantally binding and enabling grace), essential, and preferably paedo- to following the Christ. But that's not the point of this post. Rather, it's simply to get at an answer to the question: What do you think would improve confirmation? By way of personal anecdote, I'll try to offer part of a suggestion:

I was raised Baptist, which of course didn’t use words like confirmation but nevertheless had a baptism preparation class that carried with it all the automation and pressures of most confirmation classes. To be sure, a profession is expected before enrolling in this class. If memory serves correctly, I was six or seven, which, to my understanding, for the majority of Baptist traditions is kind of young (perhaps not among Southern Baptists—see, for example, this article on the upward trend of pre-schooler baptisms since 1974).

At the time I started practicing Christianity more seriously (around 20 years of age), I was not re-baptized, as many of my fellow Baptists were wont to do. However nascent my theological understanding was in these matters, it seemed to me one dunk was clearly enough.

Some five years later, I married in to a confessional Lutheran family, and my wife’s experience in confirmation, despite the automatic feel among that crowd, was, according to her, absolutely confirmatory (a bolster) for her faith.

I should note at this point that I think we fail to grasp what confirmation is, not least as a result of its relationship to (the historic church’s view of) baptism, if we’re losing sleep over this “automatic” flavor. That said, I understand why (theologically) Baptists and Anabaptists take umbrage with it.

Fast forwarding to my own practices and experiences in the local church as a teacher: At the church I had been a member of (an independent Reformed congregation) for six years during the first decade of this century, I taught the communicants (confirmation) class for four years.

Here’s what was cool about this particular church’s practice: We asked parents to decide when to put their children in this class. This meant that during any given year, I had children ranging from 5 (the youngest) to about 12. Average ages were 8–10. All throughout the class, I spent time with each parent discussing their children’s “progress.” Receiving first Communion was by no means automatic after taking part in this process. The final class(es) consisted of walking through the gospel (in age appropriate Q&A form) with a (senior) elder present. That elder would make the final call regarding the child's understanding of the gospel (if Scot reads this, I made sure it was not the potentially truncated "soterian" version being rehearsed, as described in his book on the subject).

Now, given my conviction regarding baptism and confirmation (that the former is efficacious and enabling, and the latter is meant to confirm—sacramentally, though not in the same sense as baptism and the Supper—what has been promised and thus presumed in the former), I’d made sure that each of my kids would be admitted to their first Communion. But even then, a small handful over the years would come back the next year for a do-over.

I hope this last personal experience and example helps answer the question. In short, what do I think would improve confirmation? Put the ball in the parents’ court to decide when to put their children forward. Move past the notion that every child has to be a certain age before he/she can enter confirmation. And get a spine—imagine the words coming out your mouth, “Your child is not ready,” and then brace yourself for the consequences. Finally, see each family as a mentoring opportunity—both for the child and her parents.

Or sidestep this whole issue and just go Eastern Orthodox—their children receive confirmation (chrismation) right after they’re baptized (but whence comes catechesis, which is what I think constitutes at least one major import of confirmation in the West [along with the sealing of the Holy Spirit], in the Orthodox tradition?).

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

It was Charles Spurgeon who said if you cannot teach children, you have no business teaching. I understand this struggle, primarily as a father, but also as a congregant in an essentially reformed, baptistic church. It seems like it may be best to be safe and not sorry....

Chris Donato said...

Anon, thanks for the Spurgeon reference. I hear you on challenges of fatherhood in this regard. My eldest turns five soon, and the church (denomination) in which I'm a member admits children to their first Communion at the parent's discretion. Confirmation comes later.

I'm not a fan of that, even if I'm a fan of young kids communing. Catechesis is, of course, a lifelong process, not just a one-shot deal when a certain age is reached.

Perhaps for us Protestant liturgical folks we have to come to a decision regarding the sacramental nature of confirmation . . .

OdearDan said...

I think the key is not in a particular course for confirmation, but a much longer process of catechesis, which would cumulate in an individual profession of faith, which is expressed in one's admission to the table for the Lord's Supper.

I grew up a Baptist, before coming to a traditional Reformed paedobaptist position as an adult. I was also educated in independent (read: private) Catholic schools throughout my youth. So I have seen some different perspectives and problems attached.

The main problem with the way the Catholic schools did it was that all the kids went through both first communion and later confirmation because that was "what is done". And thus, I know only one or two practicing Catholic's who went through this process, the rest generally have no faith at all. My Anglican friends also saw similar things.

So: 1) it should be the case that all children are not only taught Bible stories but properly catechised. This should be the basis from which a child should proceed to their first communion. And this must come from home too, so the parents should have a say as to when to put kids forward for communion.

2) I don't think that it is right to see "confirmation" in a sacramental way. However, I think there could be some theological grounds for making a bigger deal of first communion.

Here's my thoughts: Baptism marks the declaration of God's covenantal promises over the infants of believers - a sign and seal of God's promises in Christ that those in him are dead to sin and raised in Christ - the benefits of which are obtained by faith. Communion involves the ability to examine oneself (I do not agree with the paedocommunion position) and is a spiritual partaking of the nature of Christ, an assurance of the promises that are marked by union with Christ (John 6:56). And so I think that the first communion should represent what confirmation does for Anglicans: the declaration of a personal faith and union with Christ, of abiding in Christ, proclaiming his death and ressurrection to the partaker and the Church.

3) So a child who professes faith shows a desire to receive communion should have its meaning explained to them, and at that point should be put into a catechesis course to prepare them for it (parents and elders involved obviously). Hopefully, at the end of this, they should have a grasp of the faith that they have. And if not, I think the practice of your church in not necessarily allowing them to the table is a good idea.

Sorry this is a bit rambling! Any thoughts?

Chris Donato said...

OdearDan,

Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the ramble; I do it all the time.

My short thoughts are that I find little to disagree with regarding your #1–3. As an Anglican, skewing Reformed, I would agree about first Communion, but only add that confirmation, like, say, foot washing, has sacramental elements to it, even if it doesn't carry the same sacramental import as the Big Two.

AlexSantxo said...

Chris, I'm beginning to understand infant baptism as "efficacious & enabling" as you put it, as a promise & seal of the gospel later in life. I'd like to get your opinion regarding my baptismal history if you don't mind...

I was baptized as an infant in a Roman Catholic church, though my parents had not personally professed faith in Christ, yet--infant baptism was just the thing to do if you had babies in a Latin-american country that was majority Catholic.

My second baptism was at age 15 in a Baptist church. To my knowledge & remembrance I did not posses saving faith in Christ. I didn't understand the gospel or why I should be baptized--basically I was baptized because that's what you do when you turn 15-ish in a mainline, evangelical Baptist church.

Now, in my 30s, I live out my faith by being an active member in a local church, reading & praying daily, trusting & resting my assurance of salvation in Christ alone through faith alone. My congregation is a small church plant, independent, Reformed in doctrine & missional in living. Our members come from different denominational backgrounds like Assemblies of God, Baptist, Catholic, non-denominational, etc.)...

Given my history, do you recommend I be baptized a third time? And maybe if you could provide a short reason why or why not. Thank you for your time.

Chris Donato said...

Alex—

Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. I couldn't leave this sitting for long, just in case you were scheduled to get re-baptized tonight!

Short answer first: no.

But it's rarely that clean, is it? I've a tale of two baptisms for you.

My own I recounted in brief in the post above. My older brother was also baptized around the same age as I was. When he began to practice the faith, he was re-baptized. And I'll warrant he thought he had sufficient reason so to do—reasons that are totally understandable if you're a baptist.

If baptism is something that the new believer does in response to his/her confession of faith, then it makes sense to get baptized right after that genuine profession is made. If you, Alex, are baptistic in your theology, and you're saying that you definitely did not make a genuine profession of faith when you were baptized at 15, the I don't see how baptist theology can get away from the fact that yes, you ought to be baptized again.

If, however, you never do get baptized again, then theologically you must believe that your profession at 15 was genuine and that you spent a good many years growing in the faith (albeit slowly and without much understanding) but sometime recently you simply experienced some jolting growth, repentance, sanctification, etc.—all of which are parts of the normal Christian life. I'm pretty sure that most baptists would guide you in this direction. I don't see a third option.

Now, the historic Protestant position (infant baptism), as you know, would say that your baptism in the Roman Catholic Church was valid and thus your subsequent baptism at 15 was not "efficacious and enabling" (to use the language we're using here). It was as if it didn't happen (soteriologically speaking). In fact, you'll note that the language you use to describe your baptism at age 15 is not unlike the language used to describe infant baptism at times (e.g., infants don't "understand the gospel" or "why they should be baptized," etc., etc.).

Historically, it was the Anabaptists who were taking part in re-baptizing. None of the early magisterial Reformation movements did.

So, short reason for not getting re-baptized a third time: The first time did the trick (I recall a time some years ago now that John Piper leaned in this direction when he let it be know that he desired membership for those attending Bethlehem Baptist who wanted to become members but who were baptized as infants). Now, that's a baptist with a rightly high view of baptism, imo.

Thanks again for the story and good thoughts.

Cal said...

I've been wondering about paedo v. credo and I've been on the fence.

I was baptized/christened as a baby in Roman Catholicism and then again in the SBC when I was 18. I was a professed believer at that point.

Now most of the time I've leaned heavily towards Credo baptism. Paedo baptism does make some strong connections to how circumcision worked in entering the covenant. It is being identified with the life,death,burial and resurrection of Jesus. Now the problem is, every time this was done it was on the principle of faith (the household incidents are a bit vague so I don't want to use as pro/contra).

Yet, the major flaw of Baptists is they: 1) treat their kids as aliens and pagans until the baptism (if they're being intellectually consistent) and 2) baptizing at the ripe old age of 8 doesn't mean much for credo. In fact following credo logic I would wait until they're aware and baptize them at least at 12-13!

However for Paedo, I don't know if a child at 8 could quite understand what he is agreeing to when he answers creedal questions! If that child walks away by the time he really thinks it through (maybe even be 15) is he/she really apostatizing or proving he/she is a false brother/sister? I don't know about that.

I hold a high view of the sacraments (contra many baptists) and yet I wonder if its doing justice to baptism and to the child's own thoughts/development to invite him/her into the covenant when he/she is not even aware.

Would a 3rd way be best? Instead of treating them as pagans and trying to evangelize, wouldn't it be better to assume the kid (as one under your tutelage) a catechumen until they express faith? Granted, no such process is in Scripture but it doesn't seem right for the sacrament of baptism.

Thoughts?

Cal

PS. The "heretics" of the Middle Ages (I'm talking Hussites, Waldenses, Lollards; Christians opposed and outside Rome) would rebaptize but not for the same reasons as Baptists today. Similar to the Anabaptists, they believed their baptism into Roman Catholicism was not a baptism into Christ Jesus and His Kingdom but into the false church of Rome and into a different Kingdom. They would rebaptize eachother but also rebaptize their children. It was not a baptism for remission of sins but being added to the order of christendom. Looking back (here it comes!) this is the same reason I find my 2nd baptism valid over against my baptism into Rome.

Chris Donato said...

Cal—

Thanks much for your time and thoughtful comments.

Yeah, to my mind, old covenant circumcision isn't so much fulfilled by new covenant baptism as it is by regeneration, i.e., circumcision of the heart.

And yet baptism is clearly related to regeneration in the new covenant (Rom 6, 1 Pet 3:21, etc.). At the very least (most?), as a Protestant, one can view baptism as that which sets one apart to be in covenant with God in a way that those not baptized aren't.

I agree that Baptists who baptize young children (in my instance, 6) are essentially practicing paedo-baptism. The reasons that they do it, however, are probably more emotional than anything else.

To answer the question about apostasy—yes, absolutely. Only those who have been baptized and who have confessed that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9) can be apostates. That's exactly what I taught the kids in my communicants classes over the years (ages ranged from 6–12).

I don't disagree with that catechumen concept (and in fact, it's not unlike familial practice throughout the church's history), but, all things considered, it does lean in the direction of presumptive regeneration and thus lends itself to paedo-baptism. Nevertheless, I think it's compatible with credo-baptism too.

Regarding your postscript, I see that I totally missed that option in my above comment (that a Catholic baptism is a false baptism). I of course think that's a grave mistake, but I understand it given the paradigm.

 
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