The purpose of this paper is to examine the meaning of the phrase ta stoicheia tou kosmou ("the elementary principles of the world") as it is used by Paul in Galatians 4:3,9 and Colossians 2:8,20. First, I will conduct a brief examination of the non-biblical and biblical usage of stoicheion ("elementary principles"). Next, I will analyze the three traditional interpretations of the phrase. Finally, I will adopt and apply one of those interpretations.
Extra-Biblical Usage of stoicheian
By the fourth century B. C., the verbal form of the root (stoicheo) was used to mean "to be in a line," "to march in rank and file."1 The New Testament usage of the verb stoicheo retains an element of this usage in the five times that it is used.2
The general meaning of the noun form (stoicheion) was "what belongs to a series."3 It developed five different but related meanings from this same period (fourth century B.C.) and later pre-Christian literature. Stoicheion was used to mean variously "the length of a shadow on the sundial," "part of a syllable or a word," "the essential elements of the cosmos," "smallest parts (of anything) which stand in relation to one another," and "the stars or astral bodies as elements of fire."4 According to Delling, stoicheion came to be identified with "stellar spirits associated with those heavenly bodies" only after the New Testament was written.5 This fact becomes important in the interpretation of the Pauline passages.
Non-Pauline New Testament Usage
The noun form stoicheion is used only seven times in the New Testament. Apart from Paul's use of it in Galatians 4:3,9 and Colossians 2:8,20, Peter uses it in 2 Peter 3:10,12 and the author of Hebrews uses it in Hebrews 5:12. In each of these non-Pauline usages, stoicheion is used in one of its classical meanings. In 2 Peter 3, it clearly refers to the physical elements of the universe which will be destroyed by the Lord at the end of the age. The author of Hebrews uses it to refer to basic or elementary teachings, either about Jesus or Old Testament religion.6
Ta Stoicheia Tou Kosmou
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. . .If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!". . . (Colossians 2:8,20,21)
So we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elementary principles of the world . . . But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. (Galatians 4:3,9,10)7
Paul uses the phrase "of the world" (tou kosmou) to describe "the elementary principles" in three of his four usage's of ta stoicheia. It is obvious that Paul is using the phrase "of the world" in a negative sense. In the remaining usage of "the elementary principles" (Galatians 4:9), Paul clearly intends the same negative meaning as the other three because he describes them with the phrase "weak and worthless."
In both letters, Paul is refuting false teachings which have infiltrated the churches. It seems evident that the Colossian heresy was some sort of Greek-Jewish synthesis, perhaps a form of proto-gnosticism. The Galatian heresy appears to be a form of traditional Palestinian Judaism which insists that the Galatian Christians also take on the Old Testament law as a requisite for salvation. It is the view of this author that its advocates were the "Judaizer" party of the Jerusalem church which was later denounced by the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15.8 In both cases, Old Testament practices are being prescribed in a way which undercuts the full sufficiency of Jesus' work on the cross, thus calling forth some of Paul's clearest written teaching on the subject of the finished work of Christ (Colossians 2:10-15; Galatians 2:16-21).
The Three Classical Interpretations
Three classical interpretations of "the elementary principles of the world" have been formulated, though each interpretation has a number of variations. The following is a summary of those interpretations, their leading advocates, and the main support and problems for each view.9
The Law of Israel
The first view holds that Paul is referring to the Law of Israel. This view, which is advocated by Lightfoot, Stott and Tenney among others, stresses the way in which Paul connects being "under the Law" in Gal. 3:23; 4:5 with being "under the elementary principles of the world" in Galatians 4:3. It also cites the fact that in each case, the heretics are prescribing Old Testament laws (see Colossians 2:16,21; Galatians 4:10).
Certainly there is a connection between these two concepts, but it is overstating the case to call them synonymous for at least two reasons. First, it seems unlikely for Paul to call "the world" the origin of the Law of Israel. In Galatians 3:19-23, Paul teaches that God gave the Law to keep Israel under custody until the coming of Messiah. Whatever this may mean, it certainly affirms the divine origin of the Law and its essential righteousness.
The biggest problem with this interpretation is that it does not account for the fact that in both passages, Paul also uses this phrase to refer to Gentile and/or heretical teachings. In Colossians 2:8, Paul refers to "philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to `the elementary principles of the world,' rather than according to Christ." This passage makes it clear that the phrase refers to something originating from the sphere of man rather than from Christ. In Galatians 4:9, Paul says that the Galatians are in danger of returning again to the stoicheia, when their first involvement with them was pagan idolatry (vs. 8). Therefore, this interpretation is inadequate as a full explanation of the phrase.
The Demonic Spirits
Most scholars argue that Paul is referring to the satanic demons which have originated the false teachings which Paul is refuting. Paul calls them "the elementary principles of the world" because the heretics were referring to them as the spirit-beings which rule over the heavens. Far from being a superior revelation from God which will bring them spiritual liberation, Paul ironically implies that this teaching originates from demons and will therefore only bring them into bondage. Among the scholars who hold this view are Boice, 10 F. F. Bruce, Vaughn, Guthrie and Carson.11
Support for this interpretation is found from a number of sources. The fact most cited by the above authors is that "the elementary principles" is used in extra-biblical literature to refer to the stellar spirits which were identified with the heavenly bodies. 12 Both passages also make reference to angels in some relationship to the phrase. In Gal. 3:19, Paul refers to angels as the mediators through which God gave the Law. In Galatians 4:8, he speaks of "those which are by nature no gods" which the Galatians formerly worshipped, and then seemingly applies "the elementary principles" to them in vs. 9. In Col. 2:18, Paul speaks of "the worship of angels" as part of the heresy associated with the "the elementary principles."
There are, however, several problems with this view. The most formidable problem is that Paul's usage of "the elementary principles" definitely includes the Law of Israel (see above). It is very difficult to see how the worship of stellar spirits could be construed by Paul to be a part of Old Testament Law when it specifically prohibits such worship (see Exocus 20:3-5). The references to dietary laws (Colossians 2:16) and calendar observances (Galatians 4:10) are obviously Old Testament, but many of those who hold this view try unsuccessfully to prove that they are actually Greek practices.13 This is a serious weakness of the view, especially for the Galatians passage, because it is impossible that the Judaizers were prescribing astrological observances.
Delling deals what seems to be a lethal blow to this view. He claims that stoicheion was not used to refer to spiritual beings prior to the fourth century A.D.14 Ladd states that the word was not applied to the astral deities until the third century A.D.15 If this is the case, this interpretation must be seriously questioned because it depends upon a meaning for "the elementary principles" which did not come into use until much later.
Ridderbos, Ladd, Brown, Longenecker, Rendall and Delling16 interpret "the elementary principles of the world" to refer to religion before and apart from Christ. Understanding "the elementary principles" in the sense of "rudimentary principles," it sees Paul contrasting all religions in a negative light compared to the way to God opened by Jesus Christ. Even Old Testament Judaism, which once had a limited validity, has now been replaced by Christ. To return to it is to return to a state of inferior spiritual status similar in some way to that of pagan idolatry.
This interpretation has the advantage of being able to apply to both Old Testament Judaism and the Gentile religions and philosophies, a major problem with the two previous interpretations. It also explains why even the Law is cast in a negative light. Apart from the work of Christ which it foreshadowed, it too can lead only to slavery (see Galatians 3:22,23). Now that Christ has come, it is only a "weak and worthless" system (Gal. 4:9), a mere shadow (Colossians 2:17) that should be discarded.
This view, however, is not without problems. The biggest problem is that it makes Paul designate even the Old Testament Law as "of the world" (Galatians 4:3). He likewise seems to say in Colossians 2:8 that the "the elementary principles of the world" are synonymous with "the traditions of men." This runs counter to the divine origin of the Law. There are two different ways in which scholars deal with this problem.
The Perversion of the Law
Ridderbos and Ladd contend that Paul is speaking of the perversion of the Old Testament Law into a legalistic, humanistic system of justification and sanctification. These scholars point out that both the Colossian heresy and the Judaizers in Galatia were in fact perverting the Law into such a system. This would account for Paul's designation of it as "according to the traditions of men" and "of the world." Though the Law was originated by God, its misuse originates from the world of fallen man. This view would also make sense of Paul's description of all these systems as "weak and worthless" (Galatians 4:9).
The major problem with this view is that it does not deal adequately with the language and context of Galatians 4:3-5. Here Paul teaches that he, other Jews and Jesus Himself were all "under the Law" and "under the elementary principles of the world" (he uses the terms interchangeably). While it may be argued that Paul and other Jews were under a legalistic perversion of the Law, the same cannot be claimed for Jesus. He definitely rejected the rabbinic interpretation of the Law as a means of righteousness and refused to live under it in that way. Furthermore, the context of Galatians 3:19-23 uses the phrase "under the Law" in the sense that it was accomplishing God's intended purpose in shutting up all men under sin and thus preparing them for their Savior-Messiah Jesus. In this author's opinion, these two problems render this view improbable.
The Outdated Law
Brown, Delling, Longenecker and Rendall insist that in addition to human philosophies and religions, Paul is referring to the Old Testament Law in its proper sense. The Law was valid because it foreshadowed the work of Christ and made people aware of their need for forgiveness, but it is now no longer valid because the New Covenant for which it made preparation has now come.
This view has several advantages. It clearly allows for the Jewish meaning of the prescriptions of Colossians 2:16,21 and Galatians 4:10. It allows for the obvious sense of the phrase "under the Law" in Galatians 3:19-4:5. It explains why Paul can refer even to the Law as "weak and worthless" because, as Hebrews 7:18,19 says, " . . . there is the setting aside of the former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect) . . . "
This view also explains why Paul can link the Law with human religions. What validity the Old Testament Law once had is now gone since its fulfillment has come. To go back to a impersonal religious system after a personal relationship with God is now possible through the indwelling Holy Spirit is to go back to a state no better (in that sense) than paganism (Galatians 4:6-11). While Paul stops short of calling the Law "false" in the same sense as pagan religions, he insists that going under it as a Christian is a reversion as serious as relapse into idolatry (Galatians 4:8-10).
The major problem with this view is the origin which Paul ascribes to these "elementary principles." In Colossians 2:8, he appears to use the phrase "the traditions of men" synonymously with "the elementary principles of the world." The same problem exists with the phrase "of the world." While a fitting description for pagan religions, both phrases imply a human origin for the Law, even though Paul says elsewhere that it originates from God.
However, these problems can be resolved if one realizes that in both passages, Paul has especially the ritual laws of Old Testament Judaism in view. Since these laws do not relate directly to spiritual realities and had only a temporary, foreshadowing function, they could be called "of the world" in the sense they pertain only to this world.17 "World" is being used, as Ladd suggests, as " . . . the whole complex of human earthly relationships . . . (which, though) . . . not evil in itself . . . can stand between man and God."18
Upon closer observation, Colossians 2:8 does not necessarily insist that the "traditions of men" are synonymous with "the elementary principles of the world." Paul could be referring to two different sources of the Colossian heresy: the human religio-philosophic source and the Old Testament ritual laws. At any rate, the grammar does not demand that the two phrases are synonymous.19 In vs. 16-23, Paul would be referring primarily to the (Old Testament) "the elementary principles of the world," as indeed vs. 20 indicates.
In conclusion, the view that explains "the elementary principles of the world" as pertaining to all religion (including the Old Testament Law and especially its ritual system) before and outside of Christ is the most tenable position.
Paul's usage of "the elementary principles of the world" obviously warns against syncretism of the gospel with any other human philosophic or religious system. This is the application most commonly pursued by preachers and expositors today. But another important application of this phrase lies in the way Paul views Old Testament ritual and the role of ritual in general.
Imposition of Old Testament Ritual
Clearly, these two passages warn against the imposition of Old Testament rituals on Christians. It is not just looking to those rituals as a means of justification before God that is condemned; the observance of them as a sign of "spirituality" is inappropriate for the Christian because those rituals merely foreshadowed the "substance," or reality, which Christians now enjoy in the person and work of Jesus.
It is true that Paul calls for patience with and even temporary deference to Christians who do not yet understand the anachronism of Old Testament ritual law (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8).20 But note that he calls them "weak in faith;" they need to grow in their understanding of their freedom in Christ. On the other hand, those who already have that understanding21 are severely warned and censured for looking to Old Testament ritual observance as a means of salvation or spiritual growth. The result of this, Paul insists, will be not spiritual growth, but rather spiritual regression.
In view of these passages, it is difficult to understand how much of the church today can defend its reliance on Old Testament ritual. Both direct and indirect implementation of this ritual law pervades much of the church.22 Church members are told that such observances are mandatory and that they constitute an essential (and in some cases, the primary) expression of Christian spirituality. Paul completely denies the legitimacy of such commands (Colossians 2:16) and rejects the description of it as "spirituality" because it has no power over the flesh (Colossians 2:23). I believe that a proper application of these passages would insist on an eradication of such practices from the church.
New Testament Ritualism
These two passages also warn in principle against the danger of ritualism even when the rituals involved are prescribed by the New Testament. "Ritualism" is being used here in the sense of making ritual observance a primary focus of the Christian life and means of its expression. Water baptism and communion are the two rituals most often employed in such "New Testament" ritualism, although foot-washing and other practices are sometimes also included.
The Galatian passage in particular pits the religion of ritual observance against the great privilege of personally relating to God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Ritualism was legitimate (even necessary) during the Old Testament economy because this kind of personal relationship with God was not possible. But now God has made it possible to relate to him as Abba. The work of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have made it possible for us to be adopted into God's family. To go back to relating to God primarily through ritual observance is to reject God's assessment of this gift. This is spiritual regression which is reprehensible enough to make Paul fear that he had labored in vain (vs 11)!
While New Testament rituals remain a legitimate aspect of Christianity, ritualism as the means of relating to God has been "outgrown" and rejected. This is also the argument of the book of Hebrews (especially chapters 7-10). No church which focuses on ritualism can claim to be a valid representation of Pauline Christianity.
It is important to note that the number of rituals prescribed by Jesus are very few compared to the Old Testament economy. It is also noteworthy that the way in which these rituals are to be observed is not explained in detail, again a sharp contrast to the Old Testament period. Since we live in the period of fulfillment of salvation rather than in the period of promise, ritual takes on a lesser role. This fact, together with Paul's warning in Galatians 4:1-11, should teach Christians that ritual plays a relatively minor role in their spiritual lives compared to their personal relationships with Christ.
1. Colin Brown, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), Vol. 2, p. 452.
2. Acts 21:24 - James wants Paul to take a Nazarite vow, thus showing the Jews that he "walks orderly (stoicheis), keeping the Law . . . " Philippians 3:16 - Paul urges the Philippian Christians to "keep living to that standard (stoicheion) to which we have attained." Galatians 6:16 - Referring to the new creation, Paul says, "To those who walk by (stoichesousin) this rule, peace and mercy be upon them . . . " Galatians 5:25 - "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by (stoichomen) the Spirit." Romans 4:12 - Specifying to whom the promise was given, Paul says, " . . . those who follow in the steps (stoichousin) of the faith of Abraham . . . " Delling is careful to point out that stoicheo is not used synonymously with the other verbs meaning "to walk", but rather retains the stricter meaning of "to be closely regulated by. " See Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, pp. 667,668.
3. Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, p. 670.
4. Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, pp. 670-682.
5. Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, pp. 682,683.
6. It is unclear whether the description of the stoicheion in Hebrews 6:1,2 refers to rudimentary theological concepts of Old Testament Judaism, or to basic Christian teachings.
7. Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, The Lockman Foundation, 1963.
8. Both the Southern Galatian theory and the pre-council theory make the best sense of the data in Galatians and Acts. See Ralph P. Martin, New Testament Foundations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 110,148-152, and John Drane, Paul (New York: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 7-39.
9. See James M. Boice, The Expositor's Bible Commentary - Galatians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), Vol. 10, pp. 471,472 for a concise summary of each interpretation.
10. James M. Boice, The Expositor's Bible Commentary - Galatians, Vol. 10, p. 472.
11. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), pp. 182,183,192,414, and The New International Commentary: Ephesians and Colossians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.,), pp. 231,232,254; Curtis Vaughn, The Expositor's Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), Vol. 11, pp. 198,207. He acknowledges the validity of the "religious principles" interpretation on p. 207; Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 144; H. M. Carson, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries - Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 63,77.
12. So James M. Boice, The Expositor's Bible Commentary - Galatians, Vol. 10, p. 472), F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pp. 182,183, and Curtis Vaughn, The Expositor's Commentary, Vol. 11, pp. 198.
13. The reference to "food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day" in Colossians 2:16 is definitely referring to Old Testament ritual law. Likewise, in view of the historical background of Galatians, the phrase "days and months and seasons and years" is an obvious reference to Old Testament ritual law. For a very unconvincing denial of this, see R. Alan Cole, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries - Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), p. 118.
14. Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, pp. 682,683.
15. George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p. 402.
16. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), pp. 148,149,210,302, and The New International Commentary: Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co.) , pp. 153,154,161,162; George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 402,403; Colin Brown, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 451-453; Richard N. Longenecker, Paul: Apostle of Liberty (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), pp. 154,155; Frederic Rendall, The Expositor's Greek Testament - Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), pp. 176,177; Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, pp. 683-686.
17. Both Col. 2:22 and Mk. 7:18,19 draw attention to the "this-worldliness" temporality of the dietary Laws. Col. 2:17 implies the same "this-worldly" status of the Old Testament religious calendar; it was only an earthly "shadow" of the spiritual "substance" of Jesus.
18. George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p. 399.
19. See Colin Brown, ed. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, p. 453.
20. I am aware that pagan superstition may have also been a part of the thinking of some who were "weak in faith". But especially Romans 14:5,6 imply a Jewish Sabbath observance.
21. I.e. the Galatian and Colossian Christians, who were converted under Paul's ministry.
22. Direct implementation includes viewing the church building as the "house of God", and instituting a clergy of "priests" who mediate between God and the "laity" and employ washings. Indirect implementation includes the liturgical calendar, liturgical worship services, and infant baptism when justified by appealing to infant circumcision.