So, I thought it would be fun to put up a post every so often where I just allow the Theological Dictionary to open at a random page and do a short write up about something from that page. Let’s just see what happens.
Note: I am using the 2nd edition of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology for these posts, for better or for worse.
Today’s entry: Elemental Spirits
The most famous reference for elemental spirits is in Galatians, as Paul is communicating themes such as gospel, justification, etc. As Paul is addressing his non-Jewish audience (and their plight that Jesus can rescue them from) Paul uses the term “elemental spirits”. (see Galatians 4:3, 9)
Elemental spirits (GK – stoicheia) can refer to “basics” whether the ABC’s as the basics for language or the basic elements of the world (at least in the biblical mind: earth, air, water, and fire).
Paul has an interesting situation in Galatia. He presents a common message of Christ to those inside and outside of the Jewish story. Paul, as a Jew, innately knows how his observance of Torah and the “works of the Law” that were used as identity markers for the covenant people were only temporary, for the righteousness of God (God’s commitment to his rescue plan) came to a stunning climax in Christ. To appeal to the works of the Law as identity markers was to cling to a weaker measure. This weakness is non other than slavery that Jesus can rescue Israel from.
But what about those who were not familiar with Torah? Didn’t they have to become Jews in order to be in God’s covenant family? That appears to be the plot of Galatians (and other NT books, particularly the writings of Paul). That appears to be the issue for these Galatians. Paul came among them (non-Jews) and did not make them become Jews in order to be in God’s family. (Which was an atom bomb of an idea at this point, by the way) As non-Jews, Paul described their plight in a non-Jewish framework.
Paul uses the term “elemental spirits”, or a way of worshipping that made them “weak and miserable.” (Galatians 4:9) Perhaps Paul is referring to pagan practices and rituals that his audience assumed would help set them free, but in reality, continued to enslave them.
We can poke fun at what these “elemental spirits” may have been, but let’s not be too quick to judge. The same elemental spirits are at work today, they just have different names. Maybe it is the tax-bracket, job, house, acclaim, significant other, respect that we seek in order that we can grasp a sense of freedom. Does it really free us, or do we simply acquire a new set of chains, a new cell, a new sense of bondage?
Paul declares that Christ sets us free from slavery and its many forms. This freedom, however, binds us together. Paul shares that we must give ourselves to the “law of Christ” which is to bear one another’s burdens, (Galatians 6:2) for, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)