Confirmation and the Reformed Church

(From the Commission on Theology, General Synod 1992)


"Confirmation" is difficult to define. It has meant different things to different Christian traditions. This is an attempt at a definition that is as inclusive as possible:

Confirmation is a rite or public ceremony of the church, having to do with initiation, supplementary to baptism and somehow completing it, in which the candidate receives the laying-on-of-hands, usually with the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and sometimes also with "chrismation" (anointing with consecrated oil), or "signation" (the sign of the cross), or both.

Since the late Middle Ages confirmation has also been seen as admittance to communion, and this has been maintained by some Protestant churches. Confirmation belongs only to the Western tradition of Christianity; the Eastern Orthodox churches baptize, anoint, and communicate infants in a single rite.

Three Stages of Development of Confirmation in the RCA

Does the Reformed Church in America practice confirmation? The answer is a qualified "yes." The Commission on Worship's proposed liturgical form for "Confirmation of Baptismal Vows" was approved for provisional use by the 1991 General Synod (MGS 1991, R-2, p. 214). A decision to include this service in the Liturgy will not be made until 1994. However, the Book of Church Order (BCO) has already been revised to reflect the practice of confirmation, with the use of the term "active-confirmed member" (MGS 1990, pp. 230-238; MGS 1991, pp. 48-49).

The practice of confirmation is a recent development in the RCA. As late as 1906 Corwin's Digest noted: "the word 'confirmation' did not occur in the Formularies of the RCA in an ecclesiastical sense."1 However, in that same year of 1906 the RCA published an important revision of its Liturgy, which included for the first time a liturgical office for the public reception of church members. This was not confirmation per se, but it began the development that has culminated in confirmation.

The three stages in the development of confirmation in the RCA are as follows:

1. 1906 Liturgy (p. 24), "The Office for the Reception into Full Communion of Those who have been Baptized in Infancy."

2. 1968 Liturgy and Psalms (p. 53), "The Order for Admission to the Lord's Table of Those Baptized in Infancy."

3. 1990 MGS (p. 200--proposed but not adopted) and 1991 MGS (p. 203--revised and adopted for provisional use), "Confirmation of Baptismal Vows."

    Confirmation officially came into practice in the RCA only in 1991. Unofficially, however, some RCA congregations have been practicing it for a long time. Also, liturgically speaking, although the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order is not actually called "confirmation," it satisfies enough of the definition given above to be taken as such. Though it lacks chrismation and the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is manifestly a public initiatory rite which is understood to complete baptism and which includes the laying-on-of-hands.

    Furthermore, the word "confirmation" does show up in the opening address of the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order:

    you stand here for the deliberate and public confirmation in your own person of that covenant of God of which your Baptism is the sign and seal (1968 Liturgy and Psalms, p. 55).

    Now, this use of the word "confirmation" is wholly a later, post-Reformation use of the word, signifying that the candidate does the confirming by what he/she says. The original use of the word referred to what the church did to the relatively passive candidate. Protestantism, characteristically, turned the objective act of the church into the subjective act of the candidate. Objective or subjective, the point was the same: the candidate's baptism needed somehow to be completed; it wasn't enough. That this was at variance with the Belgic Confession (Article 34), the official doctrine of the church, seems not to have been noticed hence the RCA Constitution, which included both the Belgic Confession and the 1963 Liturgy and Psalms "Order for Admission to the Lord's Table of Those Baptized in Infancy," was at odds with itself.

    At the General Synod of 1990 two proposals reflected the fact that confirmation was settling into the RCA. First, it was proposed to bring the idea of confirmation into the BCO by the creation of two new membership categories: "active-confirmed" members and "unconfirmed-baptized" members. Neither the Scriptures nor the Doctrinal Standards know what these unwieldy categories are, but they are now part of the BCO. Remarkably, these terms suggest an "objective" notion of confirmation.

    The second proposal (not approved at the 1990 General Synod but approved with revisions at the 1991 General Synod for provisional use) was the aforementioned rite of "Confirmation of Baptismal Vows," written to succeed the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order. This rite includes both subjective and objective notions of confirmation. The whole first part of the public ceremony is a subjective repetition of the baptismal covenant. The second part, the "Confirmation: Blessing, Charge, Declaration," is an objective act by the church, including the laying-on-of-hands, a blessing, and the promise of the increase of the Holy Spirit (MGS 1991, pp. 203-214).

    The 1991 rite differs from the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order in one small item that has significant implications. Like the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order, the new order opens with a private meeting with the elders. Until now in the RCA, it was this meeting with the elders that actually effected the candidate's admittance to the Lord's Table, and the public ceremony--heretofore always optional--was considered a liturgical witness to what had already been done. With the 1991 rite, the private meeting ends with the elders setting a date for the public liturgical confirmation, which is no longer optional. The effect of this is that for RCA congregations which do not practice the communion of children, a new liturgical act of initiation has been inserted between baptism and communion, and admission to the Lord's Table is now no longer a simple, pastoral act of the eldership.

    Ironically, this new 1990-91 order was proposed to the denomination at the same time that elders were encouraged to admit children to the Lord's Table. These were two absolutely contradictory developments. The first was that baptism itself was recognized as sufficient qualification for church membership, which included participation at the Lord's Table at an age elders deemed appropriate. This was wholly in keeping with the Belgic Confession. The second development was the feeling that the RCA ought to practice confirmation, by adding a rite of confirmation to its Liturgy, and revising the BCO to incorporate the ter-minology of confirmation. The fact that the new membership terminology was trying to satisfy both of these contrary developments made them unwieldy. No wonder the 1990 General Synod instructed the Commission on Theology to study the whole issue of confirmation (MGS 1990, p. 212).

    It is commonplace in liturgical circles to say confirmation is a ceremony that is looking for a theology. There is no doubt that the RCA has been looking outside of its own doctrinal tradition to find not only the rite but also the theology behind it.

    The RCA has never made the theological decision, "we will now practice confirmation." However, liturgical practices of other traditions have piece-by-piece been borrowed into the RCA. This is not necessarily bad in itself, except that, ironically, just as the RCA is importing confirmation from the outside, those denominations that have long practiced it--like the Lutherans and the Anglicans--are trying to get rid of it. It is the position of this paper that the RCA should back out of confirmation altogether, go back to 1906, and start over down a different path: the path that, with the admittance of children to the Lord's Table, it has been trying to move over to. Indeed, if the Church Order of 1874 were still in effect, modern boards of elders would have no problem in admitting children to the Lord's Table!2

    History of Confirmation

    In order to understand the pre-1906 position of the RCA, some history is in order. The Constitution was reflecting its Calvinistic heritage, and its Liturgy had not been changed since the Synod of Dort. The Calvinistic churches had scrapped confirmation altogether because they believed it not to be a practice of the early church.3 They found no specific biblical warrant for confirmation, nor any New Testament example of it.

    There are plenty of scriptural examples of the laying-on-of-hands and of anointing with oil, but in no case are these connected with a distinctly identifiable event that might be consid-ered an apostolic antecedent for the rite. If anything, the laying-on-of-hands is directly connected with baptism, although there are New Testament baptisms in which that act is not mentioned. Neither can it be defended from the book of Acts that the gift of the Spirit is meant to be something identifiably different from water baptism. Sometimes these occur together, sometimes not.

    There is no evidence that anything like confirmation was practiced in the sub-apostolic age.

    The earliest attestation of the ceremony which ultimately came to be called "confirmation" is to be found in the baptismal rites of Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition (AD 215) and Tertullian's treatise De Baptismo (AD 198). Both works attest a ceremony after baptism consisting of a prayer said by the bishop with his hands extended over the candidates, the anointing of the candidates on the forehead, the imposition of the hand on the head of each, and the sign of the cross on the forehead. The precise manner and order in which these elements were combined varied in the subsequent development and they did not always appear in their entirety.4

    Clearly, although the multiplication of signs and ceremonies was beginning, these were not yet separated from baptism. Infants and adults received them equally,5 and baptism was regarded as granting admission to the Lord's Table.

    In the primitive church, the bishop, as the representative of the apostles, performed the entire baptismal rite. In those days each congregation had its own bishop, who was the local pastor. With the growth of the church, however, things began to change. The church of each city came to be divided into smaller worshiping parishes, served by "presbyters" (translated either as "elders" or as "priests," depending on one's theology) on behalf of the bishop, who remained the head pastor of the whole body of Christians in the city.

    When it became impossible for the Bishop to be present at every Baptism in person, one of two adjustments was made. Almost everywhere the parish presbyter replaced the Bishop as the minister of the entire rite, as he had earlier replaced him as the usual celebrant of the Eucharist. However, in Rome and those parts of Italy under the Pope, the final anointing and Laying-on-of-hands were reserved to the Bishop alone, and so became separated from the rest of the rite on those occasions when no Bishop was present at the administration of Baptism. During the Middle Ages, this local Roman usage spread throughout Western Europe.

    This separated episcopal action has developed into what we know as Confirmation.6

    Eventually, the Roman rite of confirmation developed into a separate sacrament, one of seven, independent of baptism and equal to it; and it also became, in baptism's place, admission to Holy Communion.7

    With the Reformation's greater appreciation for the two scriptural sacraments of baptism and communion, there was a devaluation of the other five sacraments, confirmation included.

    Luther rejected "confirmation" as "mumbo-jumbo" which could add nothing to baptism, and instead devised catechisms which explained the significance of baptism and then gave explications of the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the sacraments. He stated that children should give an account of these before being admitted to communion, but devised no rite to be associated with such graduation from catechetical instruction. He did state that he found no fault if a pastor examined the faith of the children and "confirmed" them by laying on of hands.8

    Luther proposed something entirely different from confirmation. It was a private pastoral act connected with education. It was subjective, done by the child, and not objective, done by the church to the child. The only similarities lay in the age of the subjects and in the use of the laying-on-of-hands.

    Calvin took almost exactly the same position as Luther. He wanted a similar instruction in catechism and a profession of faith, and the age he suggested for this was ten!9 At the same time Calvin provided no specific public rite or ceremony for it because he no doubt feared confirmation as the "devaluation of baptism."10 Calvin emphasized that children should profess their faith publicly before being able to take communion. This profession should not be understood by people today as some kind of discrete step within the process of initiation or "faith development," but rather as a symptom of the Calvinist conviction that all Christians, children no less than adults, should be ready to give clear testimony to their faith.11

    This is the origin of the act of "Profession of Faith," which the Reformed Church has historically practiced, not as a kind of confirmation, but instead of confirmation. The Palatinate Church Order maintained the practice in connection with the Heidelberg Catechism, and thus it entered into the Dutch Reformed Church.12 The Church Order of Dort specifically required that:

    no person be admitted to the Lord's Supper but those who make a profession of their faith in the Reformed religion, agreeably to the practice of the churches to which they are joined.13

    This profession would take place before the consistory, and there was never any liturgical form provided for it. It can be concluded, then, that profession was understood as a pastoral or even juridical matter rather than a liturgical event. There was a public act before the congregation, but this happened at the (afternoon) catechetical service when all the students were publicly examined; this was hardly a liturgical act. So here again, profession is not so much a step in initiation or faith development as it is a sign that, in Dort's words, "no person, adult or child, should be unable to "make a profession of their faith."

    So far then, it can be seen that confirmation was rejected by both Luther and Calvin for its lack of apostolic and patristic authenticity. The Reformed churches emphasized catechesis and profession of faith, and these were connected with admittance to the Lord's Table, from the motive that such testimonies were expected of all communicants. Thus--and this is a critical point--in the Dutch Reformed tradition, there was nothing liturgical per se between baptism and communion. What was in between was catechism. When one had learned his/her catechism and could knowledgeably "profess his/her faith" before the elders--and maybe also before the congregation--one was granted admittance to the Lord's Table.

    Church membership was very simple, and of only one sort. It was active, adult, confessing, communicant membership; and the Church Order reflected this. Profession of faith was not originally regarded as "becoming a church member"--that happened in baptism, as both the Belgic Confession and the historic Form for Baptism clearly stated. Baptized non-communicants were simply members-in-waiting, and hardly thought of in the manner as today, with the use of such a term as "baptized non-communicants," as a separate and identifiable class of members. It was just like citizenship is today: an infant is regarded as a full citizen by the Constitution of the United States and is entitled to all the privileges of citizenship. The United States recognizes no such category as "non-voting citizen," but the full responsibilities of citizenship, such as voting, military service, and eligibility for office, are held off by statutory laws until the appropriate age. (It is important to remember that for centuries the Western church regarded participation in communion as more of a responsibility than as a privilege.)

    Change in the RCA

    In the RCA things began to change in 1873 when, for the first time, a committee of General Synod prepared a new "Form for the Admission of Baptized Members to Full Communion." In 1876 this was approved as a "specimen" form, meaning that it was optional and not part of the Constitution. In 1906, the whole Liturgy was thoroughly revised, and it included, no longer as only a specimen form, the "Office for the Reception into Full Communion of Those who have been Baptized in Infancy." The Office was a "public ratification" of the "covenant of...your Baptism." The heart of the office was the asking of the candidate the three parts of the Apostles' Creed, followed by two vows. After this the minister made a formal welcome to full communion, gave a scriptural blessing, and prayed. It did not even hint at any rite of confirmation or the laying-on-of-hands. Yet the RCA had taken its first steps down the path toward confirmation, since there was now something in the Liturgy that suggested that baptism was not enough, that it required some sort of public act of subjective ratification.

    The 1968 Order in the Liturgy and Psalms was a substantially expanded version of the 1906 Office. The first alteration was the provision of an excellent model for the private interrogation of the candidates before the elders. Second, in the public ceremony, the congregation was included in the recitation of the Apostles' Creed, and the candidates' vows were expanded. Third, for the first time, the laying-on-of-hands was rubricated, with a declaration to be said by the pastor. Though the word "confirmation" was never used, the act was unmistakable.

    As if to prove that Calvin was right in his fear that confirmation would devalue baptism, the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order in the Declaration (p. 57) did just that with these unfortunate words:

    I declare that N__, received into the visible membership of the holy catholic Church through baptism, is now admitted to the Lord's Table.14

    Baptism was now the sign of "visible" membership only, and in this context "visible" was hardly a positive word. The 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order backed away from the Belgic Confession's straightforward teaching that baptism is the trustworthy sign of membership in the church:

    By it [baptism] we are received into God's Church and set apart from all other peoples and alien religions, that we may be dedicated entirely to the one whose mark and sign we bear. It also witnesses to us that God, being our gracious Father, will be our God for ever (Belgic Confession, Article 34).

    The Belgic Confession does not recognize the distinction between the "invisible" and "visible" church. It knows only the true and false church, both of which are visible and "easily discerned."

    So although the first part of the 1968 Liturgy and Psalms Order, the section "Before the Elders" (pp. 53-55), introduced some good material into the Constitution, the second part, "Before the Congregation" (pp. 55-58), unfortunately introduced material which put the Liturgy of the RCA out of accord with its doctrine. This material has continued to grow and has now produced the three proposals which were considered by the 1990 General Synod (MGS 1990, pp. 197-212). The RCA now finds itself in the same predicament that the Episcopal church was in 1970. when a prayer book study said: "Confirmation as currently practiced disrupts the connection between Baptism and the Holy Communion."15


    If confirmation does not arise out of the RCA's native theological and liturgical tradition, then where did the RCA get it? Of course the rite was living on in other Protestant churches which the RCA was watching, and it was therefore ready for the borrowing. However, it hardly had to be imported from the outside when, in the nineteenth century, there were many German evangelical congregations joining the denomination. These congregations practiced confirmation and called it such. It was not too difficult to correlate this practice with the Dutch Reformed profession of faith. Confirmation was in the RCA, unofficially at least, long before the preliminary steps of 1906.

    The rite undoubtedly is attractive to those groups in the RCA who, in the name of "liturgical renewal," have favored the general multiplication of ceremonies in recent years. What is salutary in confirmation is its liturgical involvement of the body (kneeling, laying-on-of-hands) and the inclusion of young people. These elements are certainly welcome in a liturgical tradition that tends towards intellectualism. At the same time, one wonders whether the elaboration of the confirmation ritual has come as a substitute for the much more difficult task of extended catechetical training of the confirmands. A confirmation class of only eight or ten weeks instead of two or three years is hardly redeemed by a memorable ceremony.

    Influence of Revivalism

    There was certainly, however, another motivation at work behind the development of confirmation in the RCA. This was the influence of American revivalism. This brand of Christianity also devalues baptism, for different reasons, perhaps, but no less strongly than medieval Catholicism did. Indeed, when taken to the full, revivalism has a difficult time with the baptism of infants.16 It assumes that children cannot be born again, that they must first reach the age of discretion. If there is any liturgical ceremony at all that can fit in with revivalism, it is confirmation.

    Revivalism is a much more powerful theological influence in the RCA than even its own doctrinal standards. The result is that there are views of baptism widespread in the denomination which are contradictory to the official doctrine. Traditional baptism is still practiced, but, as often as not, it is understood in a less than fully sacramental sense. It is not to baptism that this kind of Protestantism looks as the sign and seal of ingrafting into Christ, but to the thoroughly subjective act of "personal conversion." Confirmation can be taken as a tolerable liturgical substitute for the conversion event, complete with public testimony, even though that testimony might have to be programmed. It should come as no surprise, therefore, when, in spite of the Belgic Confession, there are still strong voices out of the influence of revivalism calling for the retention of confirmation.

    Eight Theological Benchmarks

    If confirmation is not in keeping with the RCA's Doctrinal Standards, what should the RCA put in its place? It can hardly go back to the status quo ante 1906. Also, there are some good items that should be salvaged from the current forms. To guide future developments, some theological benchmarks are in order.

    First, baptism itself must be protected from devaluation. The RCA Doctrinal Standards teach that baptism is the sole rite of initiation into the RCA. Baptism, not confirmation, is the ordination to the priesthood of all believers. Baptism, not confirmation, is the liturgical sign and seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptismal water is itself the anointing. No chrismation with oil is needed. Chrismation in itself is good and scriptural, but it is a pastoral act which may be done repeatedly. It is not a sacramental act, and it should not be allowed to detract from the baptism per se. Likewise, baptismal water is itself the sign of Jesus' poured-out blood, not the sign of the cross, so no signation is needed. The acts of anointing and laying-on-of-hands are good and scriptural, and they may well be given as blessings. However, they are not sacramental acts, and their use should not be allowed to detract from the water of baptism, as has happened in many traditions.17 They are pastoral acts which may be done repeatedly and on different occasions, and they ought to be practiced more in the church.

    Second, baptism is the sufficient sacramental and liturgical qualification for Holy Communion--although in admitting someone to the Lord's Table, the board of elders is called to always take account of pastoral and disciplinary considerations (such as relative maturity or evidence of repentance after gross sin). Holy Communion is not just a ceremony, but an actual communion in and union with Christ. Baptism is the trustworthy sign and seal of one's ingrafting into the person of Christ, and this is true for infants. There is an important connection to be made between ingrafting into Christ and being a "member" of Christ's body (1 Cor. 12.12-27). If the church is the body of Christ (Eph. 4.1-16), then it is only reasonable to teach, as the Belgic Confession does, that a baptized infant is a member of the church. The question of the church "membership" of baptized children is wholly a function of the reality of their having been engrafted into the body of Christ. To say that infants are members of Christ but not of the church is contradictory.

    Of course it is true that many people, even though they are baptized, give no evidence in their lives of being engrafted into Christ. Baptism is not some automatic guarantee of salvation. (This is why the RCA gives weighty authority to the elders to supervise the Lord's Table.) Why God has allowed so many of the baptized to be unfaithful is a mystery. However, the RCA should not let this be a cause for retreat from the full promise of baptism. Such a retreat is reflected in the modification of the baptismal declaration to state that baptism means membership only in the "visible" church. This is foreign to the pre-1968 Liturgy and Psalms and to the Reformed confessions. The Belgic Confession distinguishes, as mentioned above, not between the visible and the invisible church, but only between the true church and the false church. Indeed, the whole point of the sacraments, according to the Doctrinal Standards, is the trustworthy unity of things visible and invisible in the Holy Spirit.

    The third benchmark is that, in the RCA, admittance to the Lord's Table belongs properly to the board of elders (with the pastor), and not to the congregation assembled. This act of admittance was originally meant to be an act of pastoral supervision, not of liturgical initiation. Before 1906 admission to the Lord's Table was not dependent on a public confession before the whole congregation, and it should not be so now. It is entirely in keeping with the RCA's disciplinary tradition, therefore, for elders to regulate the admission of young children to communion after an intimate interview.

    Both confirmation and profession of faith have often been regarded as the act of joining a particular congregation. However this, too, happens at baptism. One cannot be a member of the church catholic without being a member of a particular congregation. The RCA has seen a decline from its high Calvinistic ecclesiology toward a mix of congregationalism and American voluntarism. The church is not a voluntary organization like the Veterans of Foreign Wars; it is a (divinely) governed society, more like a city. When one moves to another city, one doesn't "join" that city; one comes under its jurisdiction. For most of the RCA's history, one didn't join a congregation; one came under the care of a particular consistory. Transfer of membership was one consistory transferring a member of the church catholic to the care of another consistory. This is technically still the case in the RCA, and the public reception of a transferred member in a worship service is simply a celebration of what has already been done by the consistory. At the same time there would seem to be some value in making a public statement of commitment to a local congregation, within a liturgical ceremony that includes a welcome from the congregation. This is most fittingly done in connection with communion, perhaps by making particular mention of new names from the Lord's Table.

    Fourth, "conversion," which is an extremely important word for many Christians, must be understood in the full Reformation sense. Reformed theology sees conversion as both subjective and objective. Subjective conversion is the necessary decision for Christ as Lord and Savior. This decision, as the Reformation understood it, is never something once-for-all, but a process, something that is always continuing--the daily dying of the old self (Adam in us) and the daily coming to life of the new self (Christ in us) (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 88). There will be as many different experiences of this conversion as there are individuals, but it must include a conscious turning away from sin and hatred of it (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 89), and a joyful turning toward Christ and the will of God (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 90). Subjective conversion is a never-ending calling, or as Luther wrote, "the whole life of Christians is penance, meaning repentance.

    However Luther, when plagued by his subjective doubts and the survival of the old man in him, also said, "I am baptized." In this case he was referring to the objective side of conversion, which is once-for-all. This, too, is being born-again, but it is signified and sealed by baptism, since it depends not on our decision for God but on God's decision for us. The Canons of Dort beautifully describe this work of God in us:

    This [conversion] is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, and the making alive so clearly proclaimed in the Scriptures, which God works in us without our is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not less than or inferior in power to that of creation or the raising of the dead (Canons of Dort llI/IV, Article 12).

    This is the objective side to conversion, of which baptism is the trustworthy sign and seal, of great comfort to the believer. As the Belgic Confession says, "this baptism is profitable not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our entire lives." Baptism is the hearty promise that we may daily be born again (subjectively) because we have been born again (objectively) "without ourselves" (as the unabridged Baptismal Form of 1906 said).

    So, like any revivalist, a Reformed believer should have good reason to say, "I have been saved, I have been born again," as a once-for-all event. But this Reformed believer will not presume to assign a date to when this once-for-all rebirth happened, such as, "I was born again on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a rally." This is more than one can know. As the Canons of Dort point out, the timeline of one's personal regeneration is a mystery even to one s self. The only certain date that anyone can point to is his or her baptism, which is the event in their lives when they receive a sure sign and seal that the Holy Spirit incorporates them into Christ's death and resurrection. Since Holy Baptism so powerfully signs and seals the objective side of conversion, then, the Reformed Church really has no interest in the objective elements in confirmation.

    However, because of the subjective side of conversion, the Reformed Church is quite interested in the subjective act of publicly confessing faith and the remembering of baptismal vows. This should not be something "once-for-all," as confirmation tends to make it, nor should it be regarded as part of one's "Christian initiation." Rather, this remembering of the baptismal covenant bears repeating time and again through life, and this may be done corporately with the whole congregation, or individually before the congregation. Every time the congregation participates in a baptism, this remembering happens corporately. There is nothing to prevent groups or individuals from engaging in such renewal many times after having taken first communion, so long as no new rights or privileges of membership are added besides those stemming from baptism. Such an event could include the laying-on-of-hands as a pastoral act.

    Fifth, the RCA continues to value public profession of faith, especially of young people when they have reached the age of discretion and have been prepared through serious catechism. Admittance to the Lord's Table should not exempt children from preparing for this purely subjective act of identifying with the confession of the church. At what age should this happen, and after how much catechism? Calvin suggested age ten, the Hungarian tradition was age twelve, and the Dutch tradition was age eighteen or older.

    Age eighteen would seem to allow for a much more informed confession of faith. Yet Christ reminds us that we best come like little children. Perhaps the RCA could devise an educational system that is directed toward a series of public professions of faith, keyed to the successive stages of faith development, continuing into adulthood.

    Sixth, the baptismal covenant does not require people to renew it. Ceremonies of profession of faith in the RCA should be careful of language which suggests this. For this reason the RCA should be careful in what it borrows from the recently developed rites for the "renewal of the baptismal covenant developed by the Anglicans, the Methodists, and the Consultation on Common Texts. These rites are powerfully moving and contain a great deal of value. At the same time, these too threaten to devalue baptism, suggesting that its virtue can break down over time. Yes, baptism is covenantal; but its only covenant is that "new testament in my blood" ratified upon the cross, to which God will always be faithful. Baptism is the sign and seal that God keeps us in that covenant, and not the other way around, as if we should have to keep renewing the covenant in order to maintain our baptisms. People do not need to renew their baptisms any more than they need to complete them; what they need is daily to live out of them. People do this by "remembering," in the fullest sense of the word. Just as, in communion, the church "remembers" Jesus' passion without ever renewing that once-for-all sacrifice, so people can find ways to "remember" their baptismal covenant and recommit themselves to it without presuming to renew it.

    Seventh, the reality of baptism, as well as communion, is meant to be a part of every Sunday service, whether or not the sacraments are celebrated. Every service that includes confes-sion of sin, assurance of pardon, the call to new obedience by means of the Law, and the confession of the Apostles Creed is a corporate echo of Luther: "We are baptized." Congregations might celebrate heightened services of preparation for communion in the form of a baptismal service, whether there are individual candidates or not, in which the congregation "remembers" its baptism. This is not "covenant renewal," but a periodic renewal of commitment, as African-American churches do by means of their revivals.

    Eighth, the RCA historically understood serious catechesis as essential to Christian formation, but this has been in decline. Catechesis is the particular educational obligation of the church to the believer. Catechesis may include, but is not limited to, teaching the catechism. It is through catechesis that the theological doctrines of the church are applied to the life of the believer. It is a kind of education that is distinct from the educational roles of the family and of the school, even a Christian school. Catechesis is even distinct from Sunday school. The elimination of confirmation ought not to be an excuse to do less catechesis, but an opportunity to do more of it in better ways. 18 This will require the RCA to make a renewed commitment to catechesis as the heart of its educational ministry.


    In summary, the supplementary rite of initiation called "confirmation," which has recently come to be practiced in the RCA, is a mistaken direction which the RCA ought to reverse. At the same time, the RCA should take advantage of a tremendous opportunity to renovate its doctrine of baptism, to open up catechism to whole-life education, to encourage professions of faith in new patterns, and to reappropriate the Lord's Supper as the weekly diet that strengthens one's life of confession rather than the reward for having made one's confession once and for all.


    1 Edward T. Corwin, Digest of Constitutional and Synodical Legislation of the Reformed Church in America (New York: Board of Publications of the RCA, 1906), p. 157.

    2Church Order of 1874, Art. 47: "None can be received as members in full communion, unless they first shall have made a confession of their faith before the Minister (if any) and the Elders." The article gives complete authority to the local elders to determine the sufficiency of the confession of faith. The elders would have been quite free to admit young children to the table after an age-appropriate confession, though it is doubtful that any would have done so. This right of the elders is what the General Synod of 1990 reinforced with suggested procedural guidelines for children at the Lord's Supper (MGS 1990, R-8, p. 221).

    3 Modern liturgical scholarship has vindicated this judgment.

    4 "Confirmation," The Westminster Dictionary of Worship, J. G. Davies, ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972).

    5 Originally no distinction was made between infants and adults in the use of this post-baptismal ceremony. When infants were baptized they were also anointed and hands were laid on them. ("Confirmation," Westminster Dictionary of Worship, 1972).

    6Holy Baptism with the Laying-on-of-Hands, Prayer Book Studies 18: On Baptism and Confirmation (New York: The Custodian of the Standard Book of Common Prayer, 1970), p. 16. This is one of the best short studies on the subject. It proposed a thorough reform of the practice of the Episcopal Church. It ultimately proved too radical, and the 1979 Prayer-book is a retreat from it.

    7 Prayer Book Studies 18, p. 16.

    8 Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: The Seabury Press, 1980), p. 259.

    9 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV. xix., John T. McNeill, ed., translated by Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), p. 13 (cf. Hatchett, Commentary, p. 260).

    10Institutes, IV. xix., 8.

    11 "Articles concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva 1537," "Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances, September and October 1541," and "Ordinances for the Supervision of Churches in the Country," February 3, 1547, in Calvin: Theological Treatises, The Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus Edition, J.K.S. Reid, ed. and trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954), pp. 53, 67, 79.

    12 For the Palatinate Church Order see Wilhelm Niesel, ed., Kirchenordnung der Kurpfalz, 1563, in Bekenntnisschriften und Kirchenordnungen der nach Gottes Word reformierten Kirche, 3d. ed. (Zurich, 1938), p. 148. For the Dutch Reformed Church see Daniel Meeter, "The North American Liturgy: A Critical Edition of the Liturgy of the Reformed Dutch Church in North America, 1793" (Ph.D. dissertation, Drew University, 1989), pp. 45-46.

    13Church Order of Dort, Article 61.

    14 It is not that the new Order itself devalued baptism, but rather that it only reflected the larger devaluation of baptism that had already infected the Reformed Church in America.

    15 Prayer Book Studies 18, p. 18.

    16 The writings of John W. Nevin fully explore these problems. It can be argued that the revivalist churches which continue to practice infant baptism are juggling mutually exclusive conceptions of salvation. Many historic denominations which maintain infant baptism have succumbed to revivalism by teaching baptismal doctrines which are more or less at variance with the primitive Reformation heritage. One example is the RCA's own John Hemy Livingston, educated at (Puritan) Yale, who, in 1814 without synodical authorization, deleted Luther's "Flood Prayer" from the Form for Baptism in his editions of the Liturgy.

    17 It seems… probable... that the early Syrian church recognized no sign other than water by which the Spirit was imparted in Christian initiation. If this is correct, it carries with it the important implication that a second sign other than water in Christian initiation was not a matter of universal observance in the early church." ("Confirmation," Westminster Dictionary of Worship, 1972.)

    18 A good example of creative catechesis currently in use in the RCA is Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman, Young Children and Worship (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1989).