It’s not quite a follow-up to this earlier post, but this interesting nugget from St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, 3 q. 72 a. 2) puts the issue in an interesting light:
Christ, by the power which He exercises in the sacraments, bestowed on the apostles the reality of this sacrament, i.e. the fulness of theHoly Ghost, without the sacrament itself, because they had received “the first fruits of the Spirit” (Romans 8:23). Nevertheless, something of keeping with the matterof this sacrament was displayed to the apostles in a sensible manner when they received the Holy Ghost. For that the Holy Ghost came down upon them in a sensible manner under the form of fire, refers to the same signification as oil: except in so far as fire has an active power, while oil has a passive power, as being the matter and incentive of fire. And this was quite fitting: for it was through the apostles that the grace of the Holy Ghost was to flow forth to others. Again, the Holy Ghost came down on the apostles in the shape of a tongue. Which refers to the same signification as balm: except in so far as the tongue communicates with others by speech, but balm, by its odor. because, to wit, the apostles were filled with the Holy Ghost, as teachers of the Faith; but the rest of the believers, as doing that which gives edification to the faithful.
In like manner, too, when the apostles imposed their hands, and when they preached, the fulness of the Holy Ghost came down under visible signs on the faithful, just as, at the beginning, He came down on the apostles: hence Peter said (Acts 11:15): “When I had begun to speak, the Holy Ghost fell upon them, as upon us also in the beginning.” Consequently there was no need for sacramental sensible matter, where God sent sensible signs miraculously.
However, the apostles commonly made use of chrism in bestowing the sacrament, when such like visible signs were lacking. For Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. iv): “There is a certain perfecting operation which our guides,” i.e. the apostles, “call the sacrifice of Chrism.”
Starting with the last paragraph, we certainly now know that the author of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy was not the original Areopagite. So any comments he had to make re the days of the Apostles were back projections from five centuries after the fact. His idea that the practices of the present church are identical to those of New Testament times is not a conceit that has died out either.
Aquinas gives a pretty nice overview of the power of the Holy Spirit in his description of the works of the Apostles. But that overview brings up two significant questions that don’t get answered very well these days.
The first is whether the sacramental system in general replaces the kind of working of the Holy Spirit seen in the days of the Apostles (and for some years afterward) with another type of working. I think that many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church saw it that way, and many Catholics and Orthodox do today. But I don’t think that this is the idea of our Founder or of the New Testament. Neither do I think that it’s an “either/or” proposition. There are certain graces that are taught in the New Testament (such as the Eucharist, baptism, and really matrimony) that are only available through a sacramental type of system. But that doesn’t mean that the kinds of things that come through these and the other sacraments should replace what took place in Apostolic times.
The second is whether confirmation in particular is a replacement for the Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Concerning that I commented along this line a while back:
On the other hand, confirmation speaks of a subsequent reception of the Spirit, and a sacramental one at that. Those who believe that God’s grace are channeled primarily through the sacraments, however, are forced to argue that confirmation is the sacramental encapsulation of the subsequent receptions of the Holy Spirit documented in Acts. This turns the rite into an ersatz baptism of the Holy Spirit.
I really don’t think the two are comparable. A church that can operate both in the spontaneous power of the Holy Spirit and still keep up a sacramental system is the ideal combination, but finding that is easier said than done.