Alithia: Pray inform me in the next place about the third sacrament, which is generally named Confirmation

John Wcliffe. Trialogus. Book 4: Chapter 12. On Confirmation

The Proto-Reformer John Wycliffe wrote about his beliefs in a number of different places but most comprehensive was in his work ‘Trialogus’. In the 4th book he writes 30 chapters on the sacraments, rites, and conduct of the church during his own day. This takes the form of a dialogue between the enquirer Alithia (Truth) and the answerer Phronesis (Wisdom). What follows is a reflection on Wycliffe’s views on the Church’s practice of Confirmation. From the outset Alithia start’s by challenging the Church’s view of Confirmation and an argument deriving the practice from Acts 8:


Pray inform me in the next place about the third sacrament, which is generally named Confirmation; and first concerning the authority which may be adduced for it from Scripture. It has not, I conceive, a sufficient warrant from Acts 8. “Now, when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (for as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.” This is the text from which it is generally concluded, that beside the baptism wherewith men are baptized, apostolic confirmation should be added, since such was the practice of the apostles. Yet this passage is not adequate to sustain the doctrine; for it might be urged with probability that though baptism in the name of Jesus Christ was for the time valid, since up to that time this institute had not been sufficiently promulgated, yet such promulgation having taken place, a return should accordingly be made to the evangelical formula. Thus those who were baptized in Samaria only in the name of the Lord Jesus, might be lawfully re-baptized; as those who had been baptized with the baptism of John, or any other illegitimate baptism, may be again baptized without danger. That this text fails to establish such a doctrine is manifest from the fact, that we constantly say—that the baptized have received the Holy Spirit in virtue of being duly baptized. Much more then must this have been the case in the primitive church. But in this passage it is said, that “Peter and John laid hands on them,” &c. Now if they had not received the Holy Ghost before, how could they have been legitimately baptized? It is not incongruous for the baptizer to lay hands on the baptized; in the same way as the passage in Acts 8 shows Peter and John to have laid their hands on them. If then it is justly proved from this text that confirmation should be appropriated to the bishops, they themselves must lay their own hands on the confirmed, that they may receive the Holy Spirit. But such a mode of receiving the Holy Spirit is neither taught us by any sensible sign, nor by the dictates of our reason. How then can it be shown that bishops administer this sacrament to the youth whom they confirm? As regards the oil wherewith they anoint them, and the linen peplus with which they bind their head, it seems a dangerous rite, quite unsanctioned by Scripture.

Still further it appears, that this confirmation, thus unauthorised by the apostles, is a blasphemy against God, since it stoutly asserts that the bishops confer the Holy Ghost anew, or that they strengthen and confirm that gift. But this is to do more than give the Holy Spirit. The apostles dared not so to teach, but prayed for themselves that they might receive the Holy Spirit. Has the Cæsarean endowment exalted our bishops to such a pitch of dignity that they are thus endowed with the singular power of conferring the Holy Ghost?

Wycliffe here from the outset essentially challenges the argument that Acts 8 could be derived as a source for Confirmation by arguing “that the baptized have received the Holy Spirit in virtue of being duly baptized”. That to believe this is instead bestowed at Confirmation by Bishops essentially undermines the belief in baptismal regeneration. He continues:


Your replies are, in my judgment, acute and satisfactory, nor do I at present perceive any obvious method of replying to them, either from reason or Scripture. But supposing the bishops to pray for the baptized that they may be confirmed in the gift of that Holy Spirit which they have before received, and that for this reason they add to this service the sensible signs which it is their practice to observe, I do not see what there is to prevent their duly celebrating this third sacrament, supposing that the same result ensues which followed the action of the apostles; but if they fail in attaining the end of the apostles, I see not how they can show from this text that they really confirm. So long as they fail in regard to this end, it would seem useless further to discuss the subject.

This sacrament does not appear to me necessary to the believer’s salvation, nor do I believe that those who pretend to confirm youths, do rightly confirm them, nor that this sacrament should be restricted exclusively to the Cæsarean bishops. Further, I think it would be more devout, and more in accordance with Scripture language, to say, that our bishops do not confer the Holy Ghost, or confirm the previous bestowment of the Holy Ghost; for such expressions, however glossed by our doctors, are still liable, if once admitted, to misconstruction, while, at the same time, they want authority to sanction them.

Hence some are of opinion, that this slight and brief confirmation performed by the bishop, with the rites which are attached to it with so much solemnity, was introduced at the suggestion of the devil, with a view to delude the people concerning the faith of the church, and to give more credence to the solemnity, or as to the necessity of bishops. For according to the common opinion, while our bishops administer this sacrament of confirmation, retaining it in common with many other things exclusively in their own hands, and while there is no salvation for believers apart from the reception of these solemn sacraments, how could the church preserve her station uninjured without such bishops? But one thing appears to hold, in the greater part, that for any bishop whatever, baptizing in such a way, to bestow the Holy Spirit, according to God’s covenant, implies a blasphemy. But I leave to others the more subtle discussion of this topic.

Wycliffe then challenges the belief that this rite instead of giving regeneration ‘confirms’ it does not stand given those confirmed go on to show they do not, in fact, always show themselves to be fully such by their ‘ends’. Wycliffe seems to be saying more that this rite, Confirmation, actually undermines, and is therefore a blasphemy against the rite instituted by Christ, namely Baptism.

Elsewhere, on Baptism itself he describes Baptism itself as Threefold:

It is commonly said that the church hath a threefold baptism,—the baptism of water, of blood, and of fire. The baptism of water, is the baptism with that material element, of which mention is most frequently made. The baptism of blood is the washing wherewith the souls of the martyrs are cleansed. Nor do I dare assert that the infants slain for Christ (Matthew 2.) who, not having reached the eighth day, had not been circumcised, are lost. And I believe the Bishop of Armagh spoke on supposition only, not positively, when he said that this was the case. The baptism of fire is the baptism of the Holy Ghost, which is absolutely necessary to every man if he is to be saved. Accordingly, the two former baptisms are antecedent signs, and supposed necessary to this third baptism.

John Wycliffe. Trialogus. Book 4. Chapter 11. On Threefold Baptism

Arguing that the Baptism of Blood and Water respectively are related but each distinct to the Baptism of Fire.

I find this interesting because this is a belief that seems to not have translated into Protestantism when it later arose despite it heavily drawing upon Wycliffe. Personally, when reading up on the early church writings on baptism, whilst I saw an argument for baptismal regeneration, I didn’t see one for confirmation. That if a person were made regenerate in baptism there would be no need for confirmation. Only if baptism did not result or correlate with regeneration would we see the need for confirmation. Nor a reason to withhold communion, for example, from children (or adults) until having undergone this rite, to do this seems to try and lock the barn door after the proverbial horse has bolted. If Baptism is entry into the church, the body of Christ, to withhold participation in the body and blood of Christ is inconsistent with such a belief.

Ultimately, as the Anglican historian Reverend FJ Taylor writes, confirmation being distinct from baptism is a practice wherein the Church: “seeks seriously to grapple with the disappearance of the catechumenate through universal infant baptism.” Which is in itself a concession as to the changed practice of the historic church in this area. A concession that has contributed both to a lower view of baptism and a decline in the prioritisation of the catechumenate in the life of the church. An ordinance that Wycliffe correctly perceived impugns the Grace of Baptism.

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