History: How confirmation came to be

Mar 26, 2018 by

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Martin Bucer has been called “the father of Protestant confirmation.” That makes the early Anabaptists, particularly Pilgram Marpeck, grandparents of the now-common rite.

Bucer was a Catholic monk who was expelled from the church in 1523 for supporting the Reformation. He fled to the Alsatian city of Strasbourg (now part of France), which was extremely tolerant of religious dissidents. There he emerged as Strasbourg’s great reformer. There he also met Marpeck.

Marpeck arrived in Strasbourg in 1528 after leaving Rattenberg, Austria. An engineer, he had been a royal appointee overseeing a mining operation. But his job description also included assisting with the elimination of Anabaptism locally.

Marpeck decided he couldn’t juggle his work obligations with his recently adopted and illegal faith. In Strasbourg, he quickly rose to become leader of one of the city’s Anabaptist groups.

Bucer respected Marpeck for several reasons. For one, Mar­peck wasn’t an ardent separatist, like some Anabaptists. And Mar­peck was civic minded, having been involved in Rattenberg politics, and purchased Strasbourg citizenship. In contrast were the Swiss Breth­ren, whose Schleit­heim Confession declared that “everything which has not been united with our God in Christ is nothing but an abomination which we should shun.” That meant everyone who was not rebaptized as an adult.

Such a position was intolerable to Bucer, who tried to bring everyone who was not Catholic into one body. A united Protestant church was needed to better spread the gos­pel, because the end times were near.

Bucer tried to mediate between the reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, and he befriended John Calvin. He was also instrumental in developing several confessions of faith in attempts to establish common theological understandings.

While Marpeck was a moderate on separa­tism, he was uncompromising on believers baptism. “Each Christian must commit himself to the word and work of Christ,” he argued during a 1531 debate with a group of Strasbourg preachers. Baptism was “the witness to this obedience of faith.”

Bucer recognized the appeal of a church made up only of believers “who confessed and desired” baptism. It would foster purity in the church. He acknowledged that the Anabaptists were more successful in promoting Christlike living. “There are unfortunately great failings in our church,” Bucer admitted in debates with Anabaptist leaders.

One key Anabaptist argument for believers baptism was its public component — people declaring in front of the congregation that they were committing themselves to a new life in Jesus Christ. Bucer would later suggest establishing “a public profession of Christian faith in the church following formal catechization, . . . for this especially makes many good people hostile to infant baptism, because there is no public profession of Christian faith.”

Bucer would finally put his idea into practice in 1538, when authorities in Hesse, Germany, invited him to address the troublesome Anabaptists in the Lutheran territory. To win them over, Bucer proposed confirmation as a remedy for the shortcomings of infant baptism. The new rite was accepted by the Anabaptists, and they returned to the official church. Protestant confirmation had been codified and enacted.

But for Bucer, it was more than simply a diplomatic accommodation. He had come to believe it was essential to the Christian life. Just as the Israelites had renewed their covenant with God, so individuals baptized as infants would renew their covenant with God through their own public profession of faith.

“The almighty God demands in the New and Old Testament that each believer should himself confess his faith in the church when he has come of age and should surrender himself to the Lord,” Bucer said.

The Hessian ceremony would become a model for other Lutheran territories. Bucer would also introduce confirmation to England, where he relocated after being exiled in 1549, after the Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Empire took control of Strasbourg.

Marpeck had been forced out of the city 17 years earlier after losing a series of debates with Bucer and other religious leaders of Strasbourg. He found refuge in the Swiss canton of Appenzell.

While he and other Anabaptists influenced Bucer, the reverse was also true. Because they rejected infant baptism, the Anabaptists were often accused of ignoring children. Marpeck introduced child dedication as a way to commit new lives to the Lord and recognize the church’s role in their faith formation. Thus it functioned in some ways like baptism. Thanks to Marpeck, child dedication is now practiced widely in the Mennonite church today.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind.


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