Wesleyan Catechesis: The Role of Sacraments and Confirmation

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Catechism is a term first introduced by Martin Luther to denote a formal method of teaching the basics of christian beliefs, specifically focusing on four topics—the ten commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s prayer, and the sacraments. Luther wrote a Large Catechism for pastors in order to help them educate their congregations, and he wrote a Small Catechism for children in the form of questions and answers that can be memorized in preparation for confirmation. although there have always been manuals of christian doctrine throughout the history of the church, Luther specifically used this term to highlight the importance of doctrinal teaching. subsequently, many catechisms appeared in various denominations, including Catechism of the Council of Trent for Roman Catholics, and each of them followed Luther’s format of explaining doctrine in reference to these four topics.

Christian baptism in the earliest centuries consisted of two distinct gestures—water and the laying on of hands. The catechumens (as the persons who had been prepared for Christian baptism through extensive teaching were called) were baptized in a river symbolizing their participation in Jesus’ death-resurrection (Easter) and then immediately afterward they were escorted into a church house where they had hands laid on them for being “baptized with the Spirit” (Pentecost). Easter (water baptism) and Pentecost (laying on of hands) were considered to be the two distinct and yet interrelated events that establish one in the Christian life. In the fifth century the second part of Christian baptism (the laying on of hands) was postponed until one was seven years old or older. This second gesture of laying on of hands came to be called confirmation, although Gregory Dix regrets that it was not called the rite of sanctification or “perfection” of the Christian life (see Gregory Dix, The Theology of Confirmation in Relation to Baptism (Westminster [London]: Dacre Press, 1946), 25.) By separating the two aspects of Christian baptism, Dix believed that the laying on of hands appeared to be superfluous and hence lost its original importance. The biblical basis for this distinction between water baptism and confirmation was said to be found in Acts 8:15, 19:2, and Hebrews 6:2.

With Luther and the Reformers, confirmation was linked primarily to catechism and the reaffirmation of the faith of hose baptized in infancy. In the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions, confirmation was the granting of the Spirit (baptism with the Spirit), whereas the Protestant reformers (Luther and Calvin) interpreted confirmation as being confirmed in the faith after a time of catechism, usually for the benefit of children who had been baptized as infants.

Hence the Protestant view of confirmation did not entail the idea of granting the Spirit through the laying on of hands. The English reformer, Thomas Cranmer, held to a mediating view of confirmation. He did not consider confirmation to be a “sacrament,” but an “ordinance.” The Book of Common Prayer (which he largely authored), however, includes confirmation as receiving an “increase” of the Spirit, and it incorporated Luther’s idea of catechism as preparation for confirmation. The Caroline theologian, Jeremy Taylor, interpreted confirmation in The Book of Common Prayer as the fullness of the Spirit being poured out on one who was already a believer by virtue of infant baptism. Confirmation further denoted receiving perfecting, sanctifying grace. The Church of England to this very day continues to have a debate over the precise meaning of confirmation. Catechism, however, is considered among all mainline Christian denominations as preparation for confirmation.

Wesley’s view of confirmation was unclear because he said he fully supported all Anglican practices with “scrupulous exactness.” He included the rite of confirmation in this claim of support, and yet he deleted both it and the catechism from The Sunday Service (which he had written for the Methodist Episcopal Church in America). The Sunday Service was his abridgement of The Book of Common Prayer. The model catechism of the Church of England was contained in The Book of Common Prayer and placed after the Order of Baptism as preparation for the Order of Confirmation. It, too, followed Luther’s original list of topics. John Fletcher and other Methodists (including Adam Clarke and Mary Bosanquet) greatly valued confirmation. Even the first Methodist theologian, Nathan Bangs, greatly valued it, although American Methodists did not have a rite of confirmation until one was instituted in the 1960s! Wesley’s personally designated successor, John Fletcher, cited the rite of confirmation as showing that Wesley’s view of Christian perfection as subsequent to justifying faith was based in Anglican theology. Fletcher drew from Wesley’s translation of the Early Church Father, pseudo-Macarius, to show that the baptism with the Spirit is the basis for perfecting, sanctifying grace.

Why then did Wesley delete confirmation? It could be argued that Wesley quietly deleted the rite of confirmation from The Sunday Service because he insisted on the personal, evangelical meaning of the rite. In Wesley’s dispute with the Roman Catholic catechism, he specifically included a letter in his works to a Roman Catholic in which he objected to the formalism of the rite, but this letter said nothing against its claim that confirmation signified perfecting, sanctifying grace.

Read Wesleyan Catechesis: The Role of Sacraments and Confirmation, Part II.

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Dr. Laurence W. Wood is the Frank Paul Morris Professor of Systematic Theology. His areas of expertise include systematic theology, contemporary theology, Wesleyan theology and Wesley Studies. He has authored five books. His book The Meaning of Pentecost in Early Methodism, Rediscovering John Fletcher as John Wesley’s Vindicator and Designated Successor (Scarecrow Press, 2003) was the winner of the Smith Wynkoop 2003 Book of the Year award presented by the Wesleyan Theological Society. Dr. Wood is an ordained elder in the Kentucky Conference of the United Methodist Church.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Larry, it is not accurate to use confirmation for a basis of perfecting grace. Wesley himself did not do that and it will be extremely difficult to find in two thousand year history that confirmation bestowed perfecting grace. A fullness of the spirit may be argued for (that is stilldebatable) but perfecting grace has no long historical support, it is an innovative idea.

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