Friday, July 1, 2011

Strobel's Case for Faith and the Origin Age of Accountability.

I've been listening to another Lee Strobel book, this time The Case for Faith.  In this one, he's tackling what he calls the "big 8" problems people have with Christianity.  It's one thing on evolution, then a bunch of theodicy stuff.  Guess how he solves every problem: Free will!  Surprise, surprise.  What's even more annoying is that he seems without fail to interview Baptists, so due to this culture's sentimentality about children (BTW, this comes out the 19th century.  Our idea of childhood as being especially innocent is about 200 years old!) many of his questions go like "how come children have to suffer in hell/or whatever?" His interlocutor without fail brings up the age of accountability and quotes some Bible verses out of context to support it.  This is not to say I like the idea of children suffering or going to hell, what's at issue is whether or not moral accountability of children should be any less than adults.  And I think the answer is: obvious not!  

I have a theory about where the idea of the "age of accountability" comes from.  It's just a theory, I can't prove it.  In part three of the Summa, Aquinas talks about confirmation among the sacraments.  He rationalizes the existence of confirmation at age 13 or so, by claiming that people lack the moral faculties necessary to act as a responsible person within the Christian community up to that point.  The symbolism of the anointing, he claims, is similar to when a person takes a fealty oath to a king or lord.  They publically pledge themselves to actively fight or work for that lord or king.  This is what happens in confirmation.  The person now has the moral and intellectual agency to work to further their own growth in faith and the good of the Christian community.  As children, they lacked capacities for either.  God gives grace in order to augment and active this capacity.   

Now, this is exactly what Baptists say about people who are under 13 or around about that stage in life.  It is interesting that they just happen to choose the time in life  that Aquinas mentions.  They also seem to understand baptism in about the same way that Aquinas understands confirmation: it's about publically declaring your own active choice for Christ and willingness to be an active member of the Church community.  It's broadly speaking, like a public fealty oath.  The difference is that Aquinas thinks that confirmation conveys real grace (augmenting the created and uncreated grace received in baptism), whereas the Baptists consider baptism to be completely symbolic.  Hence, what appears to be an entirely arbitrary scheme of the age of accountability is actually a holdover in the Baptists (without them actually realizing it) from the medieval theology of confirmation.  What they've done is simply transfer the medieval Latin Church's rationale for confirmation over to baptism.

On a side note, confirmation goes back to about the 5th-8th centuries in the west.  Aquinas (like Luther, and unlike Augustine and other medieval theologians) claims that all sacraments must have a dominical command, so he says that Christ promised confirmation to the disciples and that they received it on Pentecost.  In any case, what happened was that a number of rites that the patristic Church associated with baptism (anointing with oil, etc.) were delayed until 13 or so.  Usually the symbolism of these rites was tied up with having completed catechesis and entering the priesthood of all believer (i.e. the oil like the priestly oil of the OT).  Since most of western Europe had been Christianized and there were very few adult converts for the first time, the majority people were getting baptized prior to having catechesis (i.e. as infants).  So just as they delayed catechesis, so they broke off and delayed these extra rites associated with baptism and performed them when catechesis was completed- usually at around age 13.  Hence, confirmation was invented.


  1. We had a problem in our sanctuary once with an uninvited bat. Due to the height of the ceiling, we were unable to reach concensus on how to address the problem. Our organist finally suggested we catechise the bat, confirm the bat and chances were excellent we would not see the bat again. After a brief chuckle, we realized the truth of his solution for Lutherans.

    The introduction of confirmation into the Church has detracted greatly from our understanding of Baptism, to wit, it has become for some no more than a symbolic afterthought of conversion. Whenever confronting this teaching, I ask why did God insist on circumcising all Israel (and converts) including eight-day old babies? When they finally arrive at the inheritance of the Abrahamic convenant, have them struggle with Colossians 2, especially verses 11 & 12.

    Would we deny our children the full inheritence rights won for us on the Cross. Should our children not be presented for adoption by our Father in heaven? What different gospel has captured your soul and surplanted the Gospel of Christ. Unless you are comfortable with an Abraham apart from faith, realize St. Paul was very direct in asserting "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Confirmation does not make you an heir - Baptism does make you an heir "according to the promise." (Gal 4:26-29)

  2. Dennis,

    All excellent points. Now, I know this is heresy in the LCMS, but I think that confirmation might have long out lived its usefulness. That's not to say we shouldn't insist on catechesis for young people, but in terms of popular practice confirmation creates a number of problems:

    1. Confirmation is used by parents to get teenagers to temporally go to Church. The parents make a deal with the kids that if they go through confirmation that they won't have to go to Church anymore. This makes confirmation into a kind of ticket out of Church rather than into it. At worst, it turns Christian catechesis into a form of punishment.

    2. Confirmation is viewed as a form of graduation. Once the teenager is confirmed, then he leaves because he has graduated from Church.

    3. When confirmation is made into a condition for receiving communion (as I believe it is in most of the LCMS), then communion is view not as grace, but as a reward for having passed confirmation.

    4. Now here's one that I encounter with my LCMS students at Aquinas. One woman told me that she was sitting in a Bible study and they were talking about infant baptism. A teenager was sitting with his parents and he started complaining that his parents had violated his personal autonomy by having him baptized as an infant. His parents said that they was false. At baptism, they were not forcing him to believe, but they were believing for him. According to them, parents prior to confirmation parents believe for their children. After confirmation they believe for themselves. The woman who told me this said "well of course it must be that way, because you can't have communion prior to confirmation."

    What I find problematic about our confirmation practice is that people get the idea (almost like you had in the medieval Church) that confirmation some how "completes" baptism. If those people I mentioned above believed clap-trap like that, then I have no doubt that there are many folks in the WELS, ELS, and LCMS who believe the same thing. What we do is in many respect more important than what we say.

    I'd have to think about an alternative, but I think we need to come up with some alternative to confirmation. Perhaps it's just as simple as saying to people that they should be in continuous catechesis. This is the approach of my former Pastor (Karl Fabrizius) and also my present Pastor (David Fleming). There obviously also needs to be separate instruction for young people before they receive communion. Nevertheless, in the ELCA I received instructions regarding the Lord's Supper at age 9 and started receiving it long before I was confirmed. I have no idea why we couldn't do it at that age or even slightly younger.

    Anyways, I know all sounds like heresy to many Bronzies, but I'd be interested in hearing alternative solutions if anyone has them.