But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles (stoichea) of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! (Gal.4.9-10 ESV).
Many people have told me that all the religions of the world have the same basic rules, and therefore it doesn’t really matter which one to believe. Just do good things and you will be okay. This childish analysis is overly simplistic and ignores all the evidence.
One purpose of Moses’ Law was to establish the righteousness of Christ as a counter to sin in Adam: Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made (Gal. 3.19a NIV). Christ was the recipient of the promise because He kept the Law and therefore was resurrected. The promise of Moses’ Law was “Do this and you will live” (Lev. 18.5, Gal. 3.12). When humans try to keep God’s rules by themselves (not as a fruit of the Spirit), they fail: For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3.10 NIV). The implication is no fallen human can keep all of Moses’ Law. Jesus has been received into heaven, in the Ascension, which dramatically shows the Father’s acceptance of Jesus’ person as righteous. Could it be said that the Ascension is the fulfillment of Jn. 16.10: …concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer (ESV)?
When Paul gives instructions to his readers, Christians need to know what he is talking about. It seems translators have struggled with the concept stoichea since differences exist in how it is rendered into English. The division of opinion generally falls into two camps: elemental spirits and elementary principles. The word stoichea is used seven times in the N.T., twice in Gal. 4, twice in Col. 2, twice in 2Pet. 3 and one time in Heb. 5.12. From these occurrences, I believe, it is relatively easy to determine what stoichea means.
Prior to N.T. usage, Plato uses this term almost polysemantically across his writings. The consensus among writers I have encountered in research sees stoichea as constituent parts of a whole. Therefore, it’s a definitive collection of parts, such as the ABCs, which constitute words and language. It is a morally neutral term referring to all elements in a system. Stoichea focuses on the discrete parts of the whole.
Simon Peter uses the word differently than Paul and the writer of Hebrews, and therefore we can eliminate his usage as referencing something else. He seems to be speaking of items that melt which the NIV has translated as “elements.” The ESV renders the term “heavenly bodies” (planets?) and has these “bodies” melting when the heavens are purged (2Pet. 3.8,12). Therefore, Peter uses the term to denote physical parts of the whole creation will be annihilated. He uses stoichea to reference the material universe, while Paul and the writer of Hebrews use the term to denote human events and rules.
Paul and the writer of Hebrews virtually define the term stoichea from how they use it. The remaining five times stoichea is used it refers to basic components. The writer of Hebrews uses this word positively by referencing basic Christian principles: repentance, baptism, laying on of hands, etc. (6.1-2). In Heb. 5.12-13, this writer has said that the stoichea of God’s word was the teaching about righteousness. He continues in Heb. 6.1 by referring to these stoichea as the beginnings (arche) of Christ (i.e., repentance, faith, baptism, etc.). Therefore, the stoichea in Hebrews’ usage were events, and, in this case, commendable as possessing.
Paul is no less clear in using the word stoichea. Above, in Gal. 4.9-10, verse 10 defines the reference about which Paul is speaking: a list of rules that makes up the whole system (You observe days and months and seasons and years!). Some in the Galatian Church were wanting to observe the regulations of the Mosaic Law (4.21). Paul tells them that they are wanting to be enslaved to worthless rules (see vs. 9). Even though the Law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7.12), humans cannot be saved by keeping it: It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression (Rom. 4.13-15 NIV).
A close reading of the remaining biblical usages of stoichea comes to the same conclusion. The word is used in the bible to refer to constitutive parts of a whole. In Col. 2.8, 20, Paul uses the term with the designation “the world.” The qualifier “world” is the key that shows the stoichea as neutral. In vs. 8, Paul says: and not according to Christ. The point being that if the stoichea were of Christ, then it would be commendable, but since they are of the world, it is sin and diametrically opposed to all what Jesus stands for and is. The writer of Hebrews, above, has shown us the basic elements (stoichea) of the Christian Life as repentance, baptism, and prayer. Therefore, the stoichea is what you make of them. Whether good elements of progression in Christ or, self-righteous works, stoichea only refer to the individual elements of a thing.
Col. 2.20-22 defines what the apostle refers: Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? The stoichea are elemental parts of a system, in this text, the rules that the world claims will commend standing in some nebulous court of judgment. Paul notes that the world is very religious; it is filled with all sorts of rules. Most people are looking to concoct a formula of behavior to make their lives better. The reality is, a Person is waiting to welcome them freely if they repent. Most are resistant, knowing that they have to give their life to Jesus and no longer call the shots. What they don’t realize is that they are enslaved to sin themselves and unable to break free. Being a slave to God is true freedom since He is the wise, good, and loving Creator.
In vs. 22, Paul notes these are human commands and teachings. This further clarifies the issue and shows zero warrant to translate stoichea as “spirits.” The stoichea were “parts” of a system, neither good or bad, and therefore not persons or spirits.