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The Sacrament of Confirmation: Scripture & Tradition

By Luke Lancaster

The Sacrament of confirmation involves a strengthening of the graces received from the prior Sacrament of baptism. A Catholic bishop will extend his hands over the heads of baptized Catholics and will call upon the Holy Spirit to come down upon them, and the bishop subsequently anoints their individual foreheads with oil. God then supernaturally conveys His Spirit in a deeper way upon the confirmed. Such a Sacrament did not come out of nowhere, but rather from the springs of Scripture and Tradition.

Holy Spirit

The sending of the Holy Spirit comes from the Old Testament. Such a sending would fill people with God’s own life/Spirit, creating an intense divinization of humanity. This sharing in God is recorded by Ezekiel, “And I [God] will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules…I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God” (Ez. 36:27; 39:29). The very hearts of humanity would be miraculously transformed into God’s heart of Divine love (Rom. 5:5). God shares His very Self, and the Sacrament of confirmation is the ceremonial transference of this Divine Self: The Holy Spirit.


The use of oil in the Sacrament comes from the rich biblical background of anointing. Jewish Kings were anointed with oil (1 Sam. 10:1, 16:13; 1 Kings 1:39), and they would frequently receive the Holy Spirit when this occurred (1 Sam. 16:13). Since Jesus Himself is the true king, and He was anointed with oil (Lk. 7:38, 46; John 12:1-8), then His followers who are anointed become heirs to the throne. They become like the kings of Israel who would receive the Spirit. Not only kings, but priests also were anointed with oil. They were consecrated with it (Ex. 29:7; Lev. 8:12; Num. 3:3), for oil makes things holy (Ex. 40:9). Jesus was anointed with oil, as previously stated, so He became the true priest. Since His followers are anointed as well, then they become consecrated to the priesthood as well (1 Pet. 2:9). Sacred oil makes people kingly and priestly.


The first instance of somebody being confirmed is Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost was a Jewish feast day to remember God’s fiery presence upon Mount Sinai and His giving of the Law. Yet on that feast day in 30 AD, the apostles, who at first were fearful and timid after Jesus had been crucified (fearing that they, too, would be crucified), became filled with the Holy Spirit. This Spirit broke through their fearfulness. Fire came down from heaven and they were strengthened to courageously preach the Gospel, having little fear of being crucified like their leader. The Spirit transformed their hearts to share in God’s courageous life of love. Hence, the Sacrament of confirmation strengthens Christians to be fearless.

Why the Laying on of Hands?

This falling of the Spirit (confirmation) upon the apostles on Pentecost Sunday was not via the “laying on of hands” sacrament of confirmation as it is today. This prompts a natural question: Where did we get this practice of a bishop laying his hands upon people? Well, for the practice of a bishop dispensing the sacrament, that comes from the fact that the apostles were the first bishops. They were Christ’s ambassadors and ministers, hand-picked and trained by Him, so they naturally were the only ones who could bestow God’s fiery Spirit upon others. Once they died, their successors continued the practice, and they are the Catholic bishops scattered throughout the world today. But what about the need for them to lay their hands upon people to transfer the Holy Spirit to them? This probably comes from the Old Testament background. For example, on the Day of Atonement, the priest would press his hands upon a goat, confess the sins of the people, and send the goat into the wilderness (Num. 16). This transferred the sins of the people onto the goat, and subsequently into the wilderness, through the “laying on of hands.” In another example, Moses transferred his authority to Joshua by laying his hands upon him (Deut. 34:9). So, only bishops who lay their hands upon people receive the sacrament of confirmation. This can be seen in the New Testament, such as in Acts 8:14-17, Acts 19:1-7, and Hebrews 6:2.


In Acts 8, a deacon of the early Church named Philip was baptizing people within the city of Samaria. Just as today, deacons can baptize. This baptism would have brought the gift of the Holy Spirit, but in this case, only in an invisible and interior way. A fuller strengthening of the Holy Spirit in a visible and exterior way needed to be brought about. So, two of the Catholic bishops of the early Church, Peter and John, had to travel a few cities over to lay their hands upon the baptized, just as today. They were bringing Pentecost with them in a sense, to dispense it upon them. Once this occurred, the Holy Spirit came down in an exterior way (Ac. 8:14-17). The graces of baptism were confirmed. Notice from this episode that the deacon could not lay his hands upon them, but only the apostles. The same is true today: bishops are successors to the apostles.

In Acts 19:1-7, the Catholic bishop St. Paul had a conversation with twelve Christian men in Ephesus. Paul expected them to have received the Holy Spirit already, but they shockingly responded that they had not. St. Paul immediately questioned them as to how they were baptized. This was because Paul assumed that the normative path to the Spirit was water baptism. When the men responded that they had been baptized with the baptism of John, Paul recognized that such a baptism was confined to the Old Covenant, which had occurred before the sending of the Spirit on Pentecost (Ac. 2:1-4). So, Paul rebaptized them in the name of Jesus, the New Covenant baptism, and then placed his hands upon them. By extending his hands, Paul administered the Sacrament of confirmation, and the Spirit fell upon them. So, Paul dispensed two Sacraments: baptism and confirmation. Although St. Paul was not a member of the Twelve apostles, he was hand-picked and trained by Christ in the wilderness (Ac. 9; Gal. 1:15-17), and was recognized as a Catholic bishop by the early Church.

In Hebrews 6:1-3, the unidentified author to an unidentified audience requested to move on from the elementary teachings of Christianity to the more mature teachings of Christianity. He said that the elementary teachings were things like “washings,” i.e., water baptism, and the “laying on of hands,” i.e., confirmation (Heb. 6:2-3). This demonstrates that an elementary teaching of the early Church involved the two Sacraments of initiation: baptism and confirmation. Both are required to be within the class of those who have “shared in the Holy Spirit” (Heb. 6:4).


Historically, the Sacraments of baptism and confirmation were administered one after another. This continues to be the case in the Eastern Church, where infants are baptized and confirmed (although they call confirmation “chrismation”) all at once. Various early Christians in the third century, such as Tertullian, St. Cyprian, and St. Hippolytus, attest to the Sacrament of confirmation in Christian practice.

Tertullian was an early Christian writer and he referred to the Sacrament of confirmation. In his work, “De Resurrections Carnis,” he said that “the flesh is anointed, that the soul may be consecrated; the flesh is signed (with the cross), that the soul too may be fortified; the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands, that the soul also maybe illuminated by the Spirit” (chapter 8). Click the link to read the sacramental context for yourself.

St. Cyprian was a Christian bishop of Carthage, Africa and he referred to the Sacrament of confirmation. He quoted Acts 8 and the episode with Peter and John laying their hands upon the baptized Christians in Samaria, saying that they did not need to be rebaptized to receive the Holy Spirit, but rather needed the next Sacrament (confirmation). He said in Epistle 72 that the baptized can “by our prayers and by the imposition of hands obtain the Holy Spirit” (chapter 9). Then in Epistle 73, he said, “are not hands laid upon the baptized persons among them, for the reception of the Holy Spirit” (chapter 5)? Click the links to give St. Cyprian justice.

St. Hippolytus of Rome was a prominent preacher and is attributed with the work called “The Apostolic Tradition.” Some dispute whether he wrote it, but either way, it is an incredibly early testimony to the Sacrament of confirmation. He said, “The bishop, imposing his hand on them, shall make an invocation…Then, pouring the consecrated oil into his hand and imposing it on the head of the baptized, he shall say, ‘I anoint you with holy oil in the Lord, the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit’” (The Apostolic Tradition, 22). Don’t take my word for it, rather, read the full text yourself.

Other writers could be added, but Tertullian, Cyprian, and Hippolytus are some of the earliest. They indicate the historical continuity between modern Catholic practices and traditional Catholic practices. Having been revealed in Scripture, the Sacrament of confirmation has continued throughout the history of Catholicism.


Scripture and Tradition attest to this incredible Sacrament. Various aspects were analyzed, such as: the falling of the Holy Spirit, as prophesied in the Old Testament; the use of oil, which was used for the anointing of kings and priests; finally, the “laying on of hands,” which was a practice that was utilized to transfer something. God’s life, strength, and power come upon Christians through the Holy Spirit and within the instrumentality of the bishop's hands. So, not only do Christians have to get baptized, but they have to get confirmed!


Sacraments of Initiation by Liam G. Walsh, OP.

Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament by Curtis Mitch and Scott Hahn.

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