Book Review: Reclaiming Lutheran Confirmation

Reclaiming Lutheran Confirmation by Oliver K. Olson with and Introduction by Mark C. Mattes. Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2015. Paper. 65 pp. Click here to purchase.

This monograph by veteran Reformation and liturgical scholar, Oliver K. Olson, is deceptively short but potent. In his Introduction to the book, Mark Mattes observes “If we were to adopt the implication of Olson’s work, admit that a grave error was made in the late 1960’s, the educational program of the church for young people would look quite different. We would reassess our beliefs about the relations between confirmation and first communion. We would also increase our expectations for young people’s admission to the Lord’s Supper” (10-11).

Olson traces the story of how the liturgical renewal flowing out of the Second Vatican Council and uncritically embraced by American Lutherans, joined forces with advocates of modern educational psychology likewise welcomed without theological critique to destroy Lutheran confirmation. Olson is not speaking of the destruction of a rite, but the dismantling of a practice of teaching Luther’s Catechism in preparation for admission to the Lord’s Supper.

A major conduit for the flow of contemporary Roman Catholic liturgical theology into the Lutheran Church is Aidan Kavanaugh, a Benedictine monk who taught at Yale. Kavanagh famously concluded that confirmation is a rite in search of a theology, calling it a “confusing mistake” (27). While Kavanaugh’s judgment seems to resonate with Luther’s criticism of medieval confirmation as “monkey business” or a “delusional fraud,” the similarity is only on the surface. Luther threw out the excessive ceremonies connected to rite and accented the need for instruction and examination. Kavanaugh sought to re-ritualize confirmation as component of a single event of sacramental initiation. The influence of Kavanaugh would run through Hans Boehringer and Eugene Brand both of whom would be architects for the Lutheran Book of Worship.

From the educational side, the theories of Carl Rogers, Arnold Gesell, Louis Ames, Vernon Anderson, Ronald Goldman, Robert Havishurst, Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget are invoked by Frank Klos in his 1968 study, Confirmation and First Communion: A Study Book published under the auspices of the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Klos argued for earlier communion and a later confirmation (tenth grade) so that the young person would have the intellectual capacity work out his or her own religious identity. Reflecting what Hermann Sasse would call the modern lust for a non-dogmatic Christianity, Klos was dismissive of Luther’s Catechism as “a train of boxcars” that transport “sterile bits of information” and “isolated globs of facts” which go “highballing through the child’s mind” (17).

The recommendations set forth in Confirmation and First Communion were officially adopted by the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America. The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod never officially adopted the report nor did they decline it. Significant numbers of LCMS congregations—especially on the east and west coasts—implemented earlier communion with later confirmation. LCMS congregations each seemed to do what was right in there on eyes. The Lutheran Service Book Agenda and Pastoral Care Companion sought at least to bring some uniformity to the Synod as a rite, “First Communion Prior to Confirmation” (LSB Agenda, 25–27) and “Guidelines for Pastoral Examination of Catechumens” (LSB Pastoral Care Companion, 664–71) make it clear that the child is to know the basics of the faith expressed in the Catechism prior to admission to the altar.

 After the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the trajectory would continue toward infant communion and in the case of adults, admission to the Lord’s Supper without any instruction and, in some cases, without Baptism itself. Chapter 5, “Disobeying St. Paul” deals with this outcome.

Whether under the the appeal of Eastern Orthodoxy, a sentimentalizing of the child, or a failure to grasp the Lutheran confession of what the Sacrament is and how it is to be used, the question of the admission of infants and toddlers to the Lord’s Supper has arisen also in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Olson’s work provides needed help in addressing this issue. He is also of assistance in clarifying the fact that Lutherans historically have been concerned not with the rite of confirmation (an adiaphoron) but with catechesis (which is mandated by the Lord).

I highly recommend Reclaiming Lutheran Confirmation for pastors and congregations who are struggling for faithfulness in teaching and practice when it comes to confirmation and admission to the Lord’s Supper. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter enhance the book’s usefulness in a Bible class or with the board of elders studying how best to address confirmation practices.

Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.