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Believer's Baptism and the Sacrament of Confirmation

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Roman Catholicism and the Baptist Free Church tradition are looking for a theological confrontation that will not compromise either estimate of Christianity and yet profit both for the up-building of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Few areas of belief and practice are more crucial to this dialogue than the sacrament of baptism. It is no coincidence that Baptists are so called; their insistence on immersion and profession of believers’ baptism is at the heart of their religion. As they enter into ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church, Catholics must naturally ask themselves what this typical Baptist position means to them, what are they to make of it, and how they might profit from the insight which Baptists believe they have discovered in the meaning and administration of baptism.

Instead of attempting to cover too much, I propose to concentrate on only one phase of the subject relative to the Baptists, believer’s baptism, and only one aspect of possible analogy to believers’ baptism in the Catholic Church, the sacrament of confirmation.

My plan is first to say something about the Free Church tradition of Protestantism exemplified by the Baptists; then analyze the concept of believers’ baptism as understood by those who practice it; followed by a resume of Catholic teaching on confirmation; and finally draw some lines of comparison between the baptism of adults who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior and the confirmation of young people who receive a special outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I. The Free Church Tradition

The basic idea behind the Free Church movement is obedience to Christ as the basis for nonconformity with the established Protestant religion, which took different forms in different countries. On the continent, the Anabaptists, Mennonites and Brethren, and in England the Separatists, including Quakers, Baptists and Congregationalists, professed the Free Church principle of dissociating from the doctrines, polity and discipline of the dominant Protestant body in their respective territory.

Continental Free Churchism began with the Anabaptists, the “rebaptizers” who refused to allow their children to be baptized and instituted the baptism of adult believers. They argued that the Reformers were unfaithful to their own tenet of sola Scriptura by allowing children to be baptized, since the Bible knows only the baptism of adults. Gradually the Protestant theory of private interpretation led to a cluster of other Anabaptist beliefs and practices which have remained in possession to the present day.

One of the earliest non-conformists was Thomas Munzer (1490-1525) and the Zwickau prophets who appeared at Wittenberg in 1521. Munzer favored and taught a doctrine of the Inner Light, which appeared later among the English Quakers. The Swiss Brethren reintroduced believers’ baptism as a condition for church membership at Zurich in 1525, along with nonresistance and rejection of Christian participation in civil government. Soon these views spread throughout Switzerland and into Germany.

John Smyth (1570-1612), exiled Anglican minister, started the Baptist at Amsterdam in 1609, when he instituted the baptism of conscious believers as the basis of fellowship in a gathered church. Baptists have also been pioneers in pleas for freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

II. Believer’s Baptism

The term “believers’ baptism” has a very definite meaning in Baptist parlance. Its followers base it on the way baptism was administered in biblical times. Without exception, it is said only those were baptized who first showed that they believed. On the day of Pentecost Peter told the inquiring multitude, “Repent, and be baptized.” As a result, “those who received his word” were baptized (Acts 2:41), thus proving that they had first undergone a change of heart before baptism was conferred. In the same way the Samaritans were baptized “when they believed” (Acts 8:12). It was only when the Ethiopian could say that he believed in Christ with all his heart that he was baptized (Acts 8:37f.). Paul was not baptized until he had been filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17f.). Cornelius and his friends believed and “received the Holy Spirit” before they were baptized (Acts 10:44, 47f.).

These and similar passages from the apostolic church argue to the fact that faith and repentance must precede baptism. As Baptists read the New Testament they do not find a single instance of the rite being administered to anyone before the age of reason. Where the scriptures are silent, we have no right to speak. Since they say nothing about the baptism of children, this practice, it is claimed, was an intrusion into the Christian church. As such it is unbiblical, unwarranted and therefore unlawful for those who believe in the Bible.

Actually, the issue on which the Anabaptists first broke with the Reformers, and on which their followers now differ from the mainstream of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity is deeper than meets the eye. It is not only a question of baptismal practice but of the very nature of the church. It was on this ground that the Baptists formed an independent Reformation tradition. Basic to their view is the belief that the church is a voluntary covenant into which a person enters on reaching spiritual and psychological maturity.

No doubt men like Luther and Calvin also held that the church is a community of believers in which faith is related to every saying of a man’s life. There was a real difference, however, between saying that faith is decisive for the church, and insisting that the faith and repentant life of Christians is itself a norm which demands a particular kind of church. The history of the Baptists shows they chose the second alternative, and for this reason could rightly claim they were carrying out a Reformation that the Reformers had started but never completed. Accordingly, the Baptists understood the church to be a community of those who have experienced the living Christ. If Luther, Calvin and Zwingli seemed to say the same thing, they never took the next step, which is of the essence of the Baptist idea of Christianity.

For the Baptists, the new life in Christ through the Spirit, rather than justification by faith is the center of New Testament teaching. The presence of the Spirit in repentant believers is foremost, and the life which they exhibit is prior to everything else. It is not the word of God as found in the Bible, but the experience of Christ’s presence which is the foundation of the church.

It was this insistence upon the church as a community of the new life, modeled on the New Testament, which led to the Baptist view of baptism.

We are not regenerated because we have been baptized…but we are baptized because we have been regenerated by faith and the Word of God I Peter 1:23). Regeneration is not the result of Baptism, but Baptism is the result of regeneration. This indeed not be controverted by any man, or disproved by the Scriptures. [1]

Consequently, baptism is a sign and a proof that one believes in forgiveness of sins and a new life in Christ. It is not a means of achieving either forgiveness or a new life, but rather an expression of the acceptance of both.

Such a view of baptism naturally demands believers who have reached some degree of consciousness and maturity. The founders of Baptist tradition did not accept Luther’s concept of infant faith as they had already rejected the Catholic notion of grace conferred ex opere operato, where baptism takes its effect in virtue of the ritual performed even on a child a few days after birth. By their definition infant baptism is meaningless. Moreover, it violates two criteria of the church: The voluntary nature of faith and the New Testament pattern. It places the cart before the horse. Baptism should follow faith, not precede it. Baptism is not a channel of grace; it is a visible sign that grace is already present.

All of this is neatly summarized in two classic statements of the Baptist faith, the Philadelphia Confession of 1688 and the New Hampshire Confession of 1833—both normative for American Baptists.

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament ordained by Jesus Christ to be unto the party baptized a sign of his fellowship with him in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life.
Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, fiat in and obedience to our Lord Jesus, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance. [2]
We believe that Christian Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer, into the name of the Father, and Son and Holy Ghost; to show forth, in a solemn and beautiful emblem, our faith in the crucified , buried, and risen Savior, with its effect in our death to sin and resurrection to a new life. [3]

Variations on the basic theme of believers’ baptism have always been within the limits set by these confessions of faith. If Baptists are re-examining this teaching in modern times, it is only because, true to their spirit of open inquiry, they are reassessing their concept of the church itself. This is part of the miracle of the ecumenical movement. We shall come back to it after seeing what the Catholic Church believes about confirmation and how Catholics perhaps can learn from one important element in the Free Church tradition.

III. The Sacrament of Confirmation

As a prelude to giving a synopsis of Catholic belief on confirmation, it may be useful briefly to explain what the church teaches about the sacraments in general, and also about baptism in particular. Catholicism begins with Paul’s comparison of the church with a body; indeed, he calls it the body of Christ. His letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians are the main source of the Pauline Doctrine.

When urging the Romans to humility and concord, he tells them, “For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4f.). The Corinthians are exhorted to the practice of charity because “you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (I Cor. 12:27). In his eulogy to the Ephesians on the dignity of Christ, he says that God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all this for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22). And to the Colossians the Savior is described as “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Consequently, Paul is happy in the sufferings he now endures, since “in my flesh I complete what remains of Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:18, 24).

The body which Paul identified with the church is a living entity. Like every organism it requires suitable means to enter into life, to grow and mature and prosper according to its nature.

Similarly the Savior of mankind out of His infinite goodness has provided in a wonderful way for His Mystical Body, endowing it with the sacraments, so that, as though by an uninterrupted series of graces, its members should be sustained from birth to death, and that generous provision be made for the social needs of the Church. [4]

Leading this series of graces is the sacrament of baptism, called “the door of the church: because it is the only way that a person can become an actual member of the Mystical Body on earth. As defined by the Council of Florence, which sought the reunion of the Orientals,

Holy Baptism holds the first place among all the sacraments because it is the door of the spiritual life. By it we are made members of Christ and of His Body, the Church. And since through the first man death has come to all men, unless we are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. [5]

Three kinds of baptism are possible: of water, blood and desire; and all three confer sanctifying grace. However, only baptism of water incorporates into real membership in the church and gives a man the right to receive the sacraments.

Having entered the church, a Christian is held by divine law to give profession of his belief in Christ, at no matter what cost and under penalty of rejection by Christ: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Lk. 12:8). Since the injunction is universal and may require extraordinary courage to fulfill, the faithful receive the sacrament of confirmation, “by which they are given added strength to protect and defend the Church, their Mother, and the faith she has given them.” [6] To be noted is the two-fold effect of confirmation, each again with a double aspect. By this sacrament we are given special grace to safeguard not only our own virtue of faith but also the church, from whom this faith is received.

However, its function is not only negative, to shelter the faith and the church as by preservation from evil, but openly to defend them against opposition. In the words of the Second Vatican Council,

the faithful are incorporated in the Church through Baptism. They are destined by the baptismal character for the worship of the Christian religion. Reborn as sons of God, they must confess before men the faith which they have received form God through the Church. They are more perfectly bound to the Church by the sacrament of Confirmation, and the Holy Spirit endows them with special strength so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed, as true witnesses of Christ. [7]

Confirmation is a complement to baptism. It promises the one confirmed additional light and strength to live out his faith with loyalty to Christ and unfailing devotion to the church.

IV. An Ecumenical Appraisal of Baptism and Confirmation

As we approach the relationship of believers’ baptism to confirmation, certain features are immediately seen as common to both.

Just as believers’, baptism is received when a person has sufficiently matured to accept Christ as his Savior, so confirmation is normally conferred on people who have reached the age of discretion and of belief in Jesus Christ the Redeemer.

Believers’ baptism assumes that a person has repented of the sins committed since the dawn of reason. Confirmation also requires that the one confirmed be truly sorry for his sins as a condition for receiving the sacrament fruitfully, i.e., with the infusion of such graces as the sacrament is intended to give.

In believers’ baptism, the Christian publicly witnesses to his faith and to his sorrow for sin. In confirmation he does the same. The deeper this faith and the more perfect the sorrow, the more effectively is the sacrament received.

But more important than these obvious correlations is the insight that believers’ baptism affords to anyone who studies its implications for vital membership in the church and generosity in the following of Christ. Believers’ baptism is founded on the premise that the church is—or should be—composed of covenanted believers. What can this suggest to a Catholic in terms of the sacrament of confirmation? It can mean several things.

  1. The church’s teaching on the sacraments conferring divine grace stands firm. Catholics believe that the child of one week, when baptized, receives what we call sanctifying grace; restoration of friendship with God, membership in the church and a likeness to the Savior which no one except those baptized with water and the Holy Spirit will enjoy.

All too often, however, “born Catholics” are baptized in infancy and grow in age, but not always in wisdom and grace before God and men. The infused virtues of faith, hope and charity may lie dormant and in time wither away. The years between baptism and confirmation are critical, and the reception of another sacrament does not magically guarantee that neglect of the practice of faith will give a person what he has done little or nothing to keep alive.

The same is true about sorrow for sin. Confirmation does not of itself, without voluntary cooperation, deepen a sinner’s repentance. In fact, if he is confirmed while unrepentant, he increases his guilt before God.

The Catholic Church is currently going through one of the gravest crises of its nineteen centuries of history. People who were duly baptized and confirmed reach adulthood, and then drift away from the church and even lose their faith. Without subscribing to the Baptist idea that believers’ baptism is demanded by the New Testament, Catholics can learn something from its implied theory of the church.

No less than Baptists, Catholics also consider the church as a voluntary association of believers in Christ who repent of their sins. Of course Catholics believe that the church is much more, but their vision can be sharpened by a new stress on the freedom and voluntariness of church membership. If baptism, by Catholic standards, incorporates a person into the church, it does not automatically keep him there. What he does after baptism—or, for that matter, after confirmation—is also important. His willingness to believe, even when it costs in terms of sacrifice, is the condition on the human side for continued vital membership in the Mystical Body.

The corollaries of this principle of voluntary association are manifold. Whatever Catholics do to invigorate the faith infused at baptism in infancy is pure gold. As a child grows in years, he should also grow in his commitment to Christ. If he does not, the commitment will be weakened and finally disappear.

As a child moves into adulthood, his hold on the faith should be strengthened through education and practice. Otherwise, even the sacrament of confirmation will not make up for human neglect, and allegiance to the Savior atrophies through lack of exercise.

  1. If Catholics can learn from the Baptist concern for believers’ baptism and its profound insight into the church as a voluntary association. Baptists might also profit from looking at the Catholic belief in infant baptism and its corresponding position on the sacrament of confirmation.

Strong voices are being heard in the Baptist churches for a fresh look at baptism. They are asking their people whether they have given this rite of Christian initiation the value it deserves. They are also wondering how far the ecumenical movement can go unless and until the doctrine and use of the sacraments are thoroughly reassessed. I quote from a contemporary Baptist writer.

There is no better insight into the manner by which the Church reveals its self-esteem than in its relationship to the “sacraments.” The distinguished English Baptist, H. Wheeler Robinson, is clear at this point: “The idea of the Church is revealed in her idea of the sacraments. If she thinks little or nothing of them how can she think much of herself, seeing that these are characteristic acts of the ecclesia? But if she thinks much of that which they concentrate and express, for what should she contend more earnestly than for a worthy interpretation of them?” [8]

Once a person commits himself to believers’ baptism on the premise that infant baptism is irrelevant because, even in adulthood, it confers nothing but only signifies that something happened before baptism—then ecumenical conversation with a large part of Christendom comes to a silent impasse. Confirmation also becomes unintelligible. What possible meaning can there be to a second ritual, anointing with oil, if the first ritual, immersion in water, was pure symbolism?

  1. It seems to me that both sides can profit from looking more closely at what each firmly believes.

On the Baptist side, the stress is on God’s direct action on the soul; or his gracious mercy to those who come to him in trust and humble sorrow for sin; or the need for safeguarding the autonomy of each believer’s personal approach to God, and not assuming mistakenly that sacraments take their effect in spite of human resistance or somehow override human indifference. All of this is healthy for Catholics to know and ponder.

Catholicism surely recognizes that membership in the church and belonging to the people of God is not only the fruit of divine grace but also of human cooperation. Sacraments produce their effect through divinely ordained ritual, but also require that those who receive them contribute their free and voluntary effort, at the risk of losing the grace received and of rejecting the blessings of God. Yet, we can use the evidence of four centuries of Baptist history to prod our conscience in this matter and act more zealously in accordance with what we are willing to admit: That salvation is not from God alone but also demands our free response, and that Christianity is indeed a covenanted church of believers who have voluntarily agreed among themselves and with God to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

At the same time, Baptists can profit from a closer study of what the pre-Reformation church always considered important, the sacraments instituted by Christ. As one reads the pages of early Christianity the dominant impression is of a church that believed in the liturgy and took baptism—also infant baptism—seriously. Baptism changed a sinner into a child of God and heir of heaven, with the gifts that needed to be sustained by other sacraments and that called for constant voluntary exercise.

Whatever else the ecumenical movement means, it should mean that all Christians recognize the workings of divine grace in communities other than their own—and profit from reappraisal in the light of this fact. As I see it, Catholics will benefit from what I call the upward thrust of the Christian religion, man’s free and untrammeled service of his Maker first in the depths of his own heart and then in covenanted relationship with fellow Christians.

Baptists will benefit from the downward thrust of the Christian religion, God’s merciful communication of grace through visible instrumentalities, the sacraments, which are simply the redemption being conferred in historical reality. Viewed in this light, baptism will be seen as not only a sign of faith and repentance already given, but a divine ordinance by which faith and reconciliation are achieved. Confirmation will be seen as what the church long before the Reformation considered it to be: a way of receiving strength to witness to the faith in an unbelieving world and a means of remaining faithful to the Christ who continues his redemptive work among men.

[1] Harold S. Bender, Menno Simon’s Life and Writings, (Goshehn, Ind.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1936), p. 78.

[2] Philadelphia Confession, “Baptism” 1, 2 (emphasis added).

[3] New Hampshire Confession, xiv, “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (emphasis added).

[4] Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, i. 18.

[5] Enchiridion Symbolurum, 606

[6] C.f. supra, n. 4.

[7] Constitution on the Church, ii. 11.

[8] Warren Carr, Baptism: Conscience and Clue for the Church (New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1964), pp. 11f.

Foundations: A Baptist Journal of History and Theology
Vol. 11-#2, April-June 1968, pp. 127-135

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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