(Gal. 4:3) What does Paul mean by the “elemental things of the world”?

CLAIM: The expression “elemental things of the world” has confused commentators for years. Ben Witherington writes, “The meaning of this last phrase is certainly one of the most debated issues in all of Pauline studies.”[1] This is, no doubt, because the Greek term stoicheia “was capable of taking on a wide variety of specific meanings as it was used in different spheres of ideas.”[2] For instance, the author of Hebrews uses it of the basics of spirituality (Heb. 5:12), and in extrabiblical Greek, Plato used stoicheia of teaching children the “alphabet” or the “ABC’s.”

What does Paul mean by this difficult phrase in the context of Galatians 4?

RESPONSE: Paul is most likely referring to the Law in this section for a number of reasons:

The context defines the “elemental principles” with the Law. Paul just recently referred to the law, as our tutor, who would teach us (Gal. 3:24). Now that we have Christ, we have no need for going back under law (i.e. the elemental things). Notice the parallelism between verse 3 and 4-5:

(v.3) [We] were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.

(v.4) God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.

(v.5) That He might redeem those who were under the Law.

Moreover, the full context of the letter to the Galatians was a battle against legalism—not paganism. Judaizers were infiltrating the church to import the law—not paganism. Thus it would be odd for Paul to be switching over to criticizing paganism at this point without making this clear.

In Galatians 4:10, Paul writes, “You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years.” This fits with the OT practice of formalism and having holy days. In Colossians 2:8, Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” Later in Colossians 2, Paul connects the “elementary principles” to formalism and legalism (v.20).

Do the “elemental principles” actually refer to the worship of the four basic elements (e.g. earth, wind, air, and fire)?

Most commentators[3] believe that Paul is referring to paganism in Galatians 4:3. Under this view, the “elemental principles” (stoicheia) refers to worshipping the elements of nature: earth, water, air, and fire. Peter uses this term in this way in 2 Peter 3:10-12 to explain how the “elements will be destroyed with intense heat.” If the “elements” (stoicheia) refer to pagan worship of the four elements of nature, then this would make sense of Paul’s criticism of this practice: “When you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods?” (Gal. 4:8)

Yet Paul uses the term “we” in verse 3 (“we… were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world). Paul repeatedly uses the second person pronoun throughout the letter.[4] In fact, the first three uses of “we” in the book refer to Jews—not Gentiles (2:15-16; 3:13-14; 3:23-25). This wouldn’t fit with the notion that these were Pagan practices, because Paul had never been a Pagan.

ARGUMENT #1: In what way were the Gentiles under the law in the past?

Paul writes, “We… were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world” (Gal. 4:3). Why would Paul teach that Gentiles were under bondage to the law?

In Romans, Paul explains that the law is binding on all people—not just Jews (Rom. 3:9, 19). Therefore, this could fit with the notion of Gentiles being under the law before meeting Christ, or it could also refer to the Gentiles falling under law before Paul was writing. Clearly, these people had fallen under law by the Judaizers, so we would expect him to write in this way.

ARGUMENT #2: In what way is the law “of the world,” if it is divine in origin?

Paul writes that the believers “were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world” (Gal. 4:3). How can God’s moral law be said to be “of the world”?

Yet the author of Hebrews uses the same term to refer to the “earthly sanctuary” (Heb. 9:1). It isn’t that the tabernacle was sinful, but it was from the world (hagion kosmikon).

ARGUMENT #3: Why does he call legalism the worship of gods?

Paul writes, “When you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. 9 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 elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (Gal. 4:8-9) Doesn’t this expressly interpret the “elemental things” (stoicheia) with idolatry and paganism?

Not necessarily. Paul’s original use of “elemental things” was in verse 3, where he uses it of the Law. In that context, he is clearly referring to the law. In verse 9, however, he is referring to their pagan background worshipping the elements. It might seem odd to interpret the “elemental things” in such a different way, but the context warrants this. Paul is comparing the Jewish slavery under the Law to the pagan slavery under paganism. He knows that his Gentile audience wants freedom from the slavery from Paganism (v.9), so he equates this practice with the freedom from the Law. Neither legalism nor paganism can bring us into sonship—only Christ can.

[1] Witherington, Ben. Grace in Galatia: a Commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1998. 284.

[2] Longenecker, R. N. (1998). Galatians (Vol. 41, p. 165). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[3] Cole, R. A. (1989). Galatians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 9, pp. 159–160). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Longenecker, R. N. (1998). Galatians (Vol. 41, p. 164). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.