The Church does not exclusively depend on Scripture to know what God revealed in Jesus (see DV 9). The total appropriation by the apostles of what they witnessed in the life of the Lord was expressed by their preaching, reflected in Scripture, but also was contained in their practices and the manner in which they organized the Church and its work of handing on the faith (see S.t., 3, q. 72, a. 4, ad 1). Hence, even if it were clear that the New Testament cannot establish the institution of confirmation by Jesus, that would not be a reason to deny the Church’s teaching that Jesus instituted this sacrament as well as others (see S.t., 3, q. 72, a. 1, ad 1).
However, since some think they find little or no basis in the New Testament for confirmation, it is worth considering briefly what evidence there is in Scripture concerning this sacrament. The Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of Confirmation makes use of (and thus provides an ecclesial interpretation of) some relevant passages of Scripture.11
First, it is pointed out that the Holy Spirit assisted Jesus in his mission; Jesus himself taught that the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” referred to himself (see Lk 4.17–21). It seems that if confirmation is assimilated to this anointing of Jesus with the Spirit, then a solid basis for the distinction between baptism and confirmation is established, for baptism into Jesus makes us by adoption what he is naturally: a child of God. The anointing of Jesus with the Spirit was given for his temporal mission of revelation and worship of the Father; clearly, we also need a parallel gift and commissioning, distinct from baptism. This gift and consecration is received in confirmation.
Second, the document recounts the promises of Jesus to his disciples that he would send the Spirit, to help them specifically in their capacity as witnesses (see Lk 12.12; 24.49; Jn 14.16; 15.26; Acts 1.8). To these one might add the passage in which Jesus promises the Spirit to convict the world of sin, justice, and condemnation, and to help the apostles assimilate just what Jesus revealed, not something new and different (see Jn 16.7–15). This passage can reasonably be taken to bear on the apostolic task of assimilating and proclaiming the gospel. Thus, in the promise of the Spirit the orientation is strongly toward the ministry of the followers of Jesus, not simply toward their personal transformation.
Third, the document interprets the Pentecost manifestation as the fulfillment of the promises of Jesus. Those filled with the Spirit proclaim the works of God (see Acts 2.4), and begin to prophesy according to the promise of the messianic age (see Acts 2.17–18). The baptized also received the gift of the Spirit (see Acts 2.38). The document uses a reference to the laying on of hands as distinct from baptism (see Heb 6.2) to support the conclusion that from Pentecost on “the apostles, in fulfillment of Christ’s wish, imparted the gift of the Spirit to the newly baptized by the laying on of hands to complete the grace of baptism.”12
The texts used in this document and its interpretation of them provide a scriptural basis for the judgment that the sacrament of confirmation was instituted by Jesus when he promised the gift of the Spirit, that this sacrament was administered by the apostles from Pentecost on, and that confirmation always has been distinct from baptism.
The Pentecost manifestation is the central event narrated in the New Testament relevant to confirmation, for although the existence and distinctness of the sacrament is not established by the narrative of this event, the sacrament’s substance is the gift of the Holy Spirit for the proclamation of the gospel, which begins with Pentecost. A footnote in the New American Bible (on Acts 2.1–41) calls in question the historicity of the Pentecost manifestation: “It is likely that the narrative telescopes events that took place over a period of time and on a less dramatic scale. The Twelve were not originally in a position to proclaim publicly the messianic office of Jesus without incurring immediate reprisal from those religious authorities in Jerusalem who had encompassed Jesus’ death precisely to stem the rising tide in his favor; cf. Jn 11.47f. Once the ‘new covenant’ had acquired many adherents, public teaching could more easily be undertaken.” But according to the narrative, the public proclamation was made at once, and “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2.41).
Had the apostles not received the gift of the Spirit or had they lost this gift due to infidelity, then undoubtedly they would have reasoned that they could not carry out the mandate of Jesus to proclaim his gospel without immediately incurring reprisal from the religious authorities in Jerusalem who had brought about his death. But they did receive the gift of the Spirit and they were faithful. So why doubt that they considered themselves to be in a position to carry out Jesus’ mandate, and that they explained the Pentecost manifestation along the lines narrated? The authorities, who had some difficulty securing Roman authorization and cooperation in the execution of Jesus (see Jn 18.28–19.22), doubtless found Pilate unwilling to do additional crucifixions in an effort to stem a movement which to him probably seemed more religious intoxication than political insurgence.13