45. The Basic Principles of the World.
When we hear the word VOLVO, many of us would probably think of a Swedish automobile claiming to convey its occupants even at high speed with great safety and comfort.
The name this manufacturer of roller bearings chose in 1911 is Latin for “I roll”, a logic choice for their products. When they started building automobiles in 1927, the name rolled on.
Suppose we find the word “volvo” in a report by Tacitus around the year 100 A.D. to his superiors in Rome, it would be ridiculous to assume that he was thinking of being “conveyed at high speed with great safety and comfort”!
Yet unknowing we can make this very mistake of applying meanings that developed much later, to words found in the Bible.
Consider the following example where the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia) in Galatians 4:3 which is translated differently. (I printed the words in bold.)
(MKJV) Even so we, when we were infants, were in bondage under the elements of the world.
(MSG) That is the way it is with us: When we were minors, we were just like slaves ordered around by simple instructions (the tutors and administrators of this world), with no say in the conduct of our own lives.
(NIV) So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.
(RSV) So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe.
Apart from the many different ways this word is translated, there are even more ways it is interpreted and applied.
A. Du Plessis mentions this verse (used by some deliverance ministers) in her dissertation “The Ministry of Deliverance: A Systematic-Theological Evaluation” which she submitted as part of the requirements for the degree Master of Divinity (M Div). She quotes Longenecker on the possible meaning of the word “stoicheia”:
“Outside the New Testament the term used by Paul “elements” had six usages:
- Degrees on a sundial by which time is calculated;
- Letters, syllables, or words of a sentence, or the sounds that they represent;
- The basic elements of which the cosmos is composed;
- The fundamental principles or rudimentary teachings of subjects;
- The stars and other heavenly bodies, presumably because composed of the chief and finest of the elements, fire;
- The stellar spirits, gods, demons, and angels.
Only the first four were used during and before the New Testament period. The fifth use dates from the middle of the second century and the sixth from the third and fourth centuries. Delling concludes that “a man of NT days would take “stoicheia tou kosmou” to refer to the ‘basic materials’ of which everything in the cosmos, including man is composed” (Longenecker 1990: 165). (Quote by A. Du Plessis 2011: 28-29).
When I look at the list, the first two are obviously not what Paul had in mind. The third usage of the word refers to the basic elements of which the cosmos had supposedly been composed. Either the four elements (water, earth, air, fire) of Empedocles (†430 B.C.) could be applicable, or that of Aristotle (†322 B.C.) who added a fifth element “ether” or the Godly element which includes the stars. It is obvious that Paul did not refer to this usage.
That leaves us with the fourth meaning of the word “elements”, fundamental principles or rudimentary teachings of subjects. Paul could have meant being in bondage of idols, especially the Greek gods worshipped in Galatia (see Vs.8) or in bondage of the laws of Moses, having the Judean background of both Jews and Proselytes in mind (see Vs.9).
Yet in some circles, especially charismatic groups concentrating on deliverance theology the sixth usage of the word applied as evil spirits or demons is utilized. This usage of the word for “elements” came into use no less than 200 to 300 years after Paul had written his epistle to the Galatians!
It is such a great responsibility to translate, interpret and apply the Word of God!
If you were a translator, how would you translate, and how would you interpret it in a sermon?
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