by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



A contemporary of Augustine’s, Marius Victorinus, offers his insight on the matter. It is understood that every minor heir is under a guardian. The Law of Moses serves to guard these future heirs like a guardian or steward. They were already designated to be heirs, but on account of their spiritual age are not considered adults unable to act on their own authority and accept the responsibility as full heirs to the promises God made to Abraham. Yet they are not at that time treated like slaves engaged in service, but because they are living under guardianship, they are like slaves for a time appointed by the father. This is how a steward, guardian, or custodian exercises power at the bidding of a father: to ensure that when an heir reaches maturity, they will act on their own accord, of their own free will, and become responsible for the inheritance they received. This simile relates to those to whom the Law was given.[1]  So even though Paul declares the Law no longer valid, he does not dismiss its use in keeping the Jews in line for their eventual inheritance through the Anointed One.

A later scholar, Haimo of Auxerre (820-885 AD), points to how the elements of the Law worked in providing service to the Jews: They became the guiding principles that helped raise abstract and concrete things to a spiritual level. The Apostle Paul points out that we are all subject to the dynamics of this world. This should help us comprehend these guiding principles as pertaining to the Jews in two ways: By first understanding: the principles are called the Law and the Prophets because just as the elements are the beginning and foundation of all earthly things, so the Law and the Prophets are the beginning and foundation of all divine instruction. That’s why in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer also calls them elements of the Law because Jews were servants under the Law and the Prophets.[2]

In other words, they were serving under the elements because their lives were affected by their observances of the sun and the moon, and celebrated new moons and other festivals. Bear in mind that Paul did not say, “we were serving the elements,” but rather that we were under the influence of the elements. Consequently, we live by observing what the Law and the Prophets said. Perhaps he means that we were tied to observing the seasons and paid attention to the course and stages of the moon. Since the sun and moon are elements, however, the Gentiles were, in fact, servants of the elements.[3] While the Jews easily saw how this applied to many of their festivals, the non-Jews also saw how it related to their pagan practices. However, these were never seen as guardians of the Promise.

Somewhat later, another medieval scholar, Bruno the Carthusian, points out that the Apostle Paul certainly stated that there is no longer any task for the custodian to perform, but he didn’t explain why there was a tutor or guardian needed in the first place. He addresses this here by saying that even if you are now in union with the Anointed One and no longer need the tutor, there was a time when you really needed such a tutor.[4] Bruno goes on to say that the Law, as a custodian, also served to make sure that the inheritance was properly managed.  No wonder the Jewish people continue to be a recognized group and culture in the world. And just as a child grows in learning and knowledge, so the Law served to provide prophets and teachers who helped in making God’s plan clearer and more relevant. Then, when everything was in place, God sent His Son, making sure that the lineage of Jesus identified Him as a descendant of Abraham and of David.

Toward the later stages of the medieval period (also known as the Middle Ages: 500–1500 AD), Nicholas of Lyra sees verse three as a reference to the Jews’ life under the laws of the First Covenant when they functioned according to the legal observances referred to here as the elements, meaning the letters. When small children are learning, they begin with these basic elements so that they might eventually be able to name and define things. The children proceed along these lines until the time comes to put aside repeating such things, at which point they go on to devote their efforts to advanced academic disciplines. That’s why the legal observances of the Law functioned as symbols that were meant to prepare Jews for the coming of the Messiah. That is why the Law was to be put aside when the Anointed One arrived.[5]

I like the way Martin Luther phrased it. He believes that Paul tried to say that the Law is something material and mundane. It may warn of evil, but it does not keep us from doing wrong. The Law does not make us right in God’s eyes; it does not ensure that a person will go to heaven. You do not obtain eternal life just because you don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, etc. Forms of outward holiness do not constitute real Christianity. Even the unconverted follow restraints to avoid punishment or to earn a good reputation. To tell the truth, such restraint is simple hypocrisy. When the Law exercises its higher function, it accuses and condemns the conscience. All these effects of the Law cannot be called divine or heavenly. These effects are elements of the world. You need something better than that.[6]

Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), in speaking about the Church’s role in God’s plan of salvation said, that from the time of Adam’s fall to the incarnation of the Anointed One, there were many changes and revolutions in the world, but they were only turning the wheels to make way for the coming of the Messiah. Although the world was, for the most part, ignorant as to knowing the One True God, there were lights along the way – Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the Law, Joshua, the prophets, the psalmists, and King David God used to let His light shine into the dark world no matter how small or contained as they were. They marked the path for the Light of the World to come. As Paul puts it here in verses one through three, God’s people were still minors being under tutorship until they were set free to live as adults in God’s Kingdom. Once the Anointed One came, died, buried, and rose again, all those who followed such as the Apostles, Paul, and others down through Church history were no lights within themselves but reflected the Light living in them.[7]

Adam Clarke (1760-1851) takes note of Paul’s use of the phrase “the elements of the world” in this verse.[8]  He explains that this is a common Jewish phrase, that is, the rudiments or principles of the Jewish religion. The Apostle insinuates that the Law was not the plan of salvation; it was only the elements or alphabet of it. In the Gospel, this alphabet composes the most glorious hymn of Divine knowledge. However, the alphabet itself is nothing spiritual until it is made into syllables, words, sentences, and instruction. So, the Law, taken by itself, gives no salvation; it’s like an outline of the Gospel, but it is the Gospel alone that fills up the spaces in between.[9]

Catholic scholar Haydock (1774-1849) goes on to say that Chrysostom understands the elements of the world to be the exterior ceremonies and precepts of the law of Moses, with an insinuation to the first elements or rudiments which children are taught. And British theologian Charles John Elliott, who wrote during this same time in his exposition, says that the word translated elements is peculiar. The root word from which it is derived means “in a row.” Hence the derivative is applied to the letters of the alphabet because they were arranged in rows. That’s why it came to mean the “elements” or “rudiments” of learning, and then “elements” of any kind.

The older commentators on this passage, for the most part, took it in the special sense of “the elements of nature,” “the heavenly bodies,” either as the objects of Gentile worship or as marking the times of the Jewish festivals. There is, however, little doubt that the other sense is best: “the elements or rudiments of religious teaching.” These are called “the elements of the world” because they were mundane and material; they included no clear recognition of spiritual things. The earlier forms of Gentile and even of Jewish religion relied mostly on the senses, that’s why rites, rituals, regulations, and ceremonies became the most important elements. This same phrase, in the same sense, occurs twice in the Epistle to the Colossians.[10] [11] How true this is of many who begin their spiritual lives in the Church. They learn all the required rites and ceremonies before they are introduced to the basic Gospel and Epistles to grow up in God’s Word. Unfortunately, like the Jews, they become stuck in their elementary spiritual education and never move on.

Scottish minister and theological author, James Macknight (1721-1800) give a critical look at whether or not the rites and rituals of Moses excelled in any way over the rites and rituals of heathenism. It begins by looking at their divine origin and the knowledge of a real atonement for sin, exhibited by types and figures of their respective religions. When examined closely, we see that the subjects of God’s moral government, given in its precepts, the law of Moses in the Jewish religion afforded the Jew no better hope of pardon than the idolatry laws of heathen. Like the law of nature, the Law of Moses required perfect obedience to all its precepts, under the penalty of death. Consequently, it subjected every disobedient follower to death without mercy.

Another thing that Macknight points out is that the Jewish religion offered no better sacrifices and more thorough purifications than the heathen religions. The water and blood may claim to cleanse the body, but it did not cleanse the conscience from the guilt of disobedience. While they both required strict obedience to all the rules, they offered no assistance that enabled them to obey its requirements. In other words, neither the Hebrew nor the Heathen religions were able to procure the pardon for disobedience and thereby proved unable to save them from the sentence of death. So, since all the rites, rituals, regulations, and ceremonies of both religions offered no salvation, they also offered no promise of eternal life even to the most obedient adherents. That’s why the Apostle Paul, here in verse three, accuses them of going back to the basic elements of heathenism, which bore a close resemblance to the elements of Hebraism. No wonder the Apostle was confounded that the Galatians, who were given both salvation and eternal life through faith in Jesus Messiah, were trading their freedom through grace for a set of failed rites, rituals, regulations, and ceremonies through the Law.[12]

[1] Marius Victorinus, Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[2] Hebrews 5:12

[3] Haimo of Auxerre: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[4] Bruno the Carthusian: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[5] Nicholas of Lyra: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[6] Martin Luther: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[7] Edwards, Jonathan. The Complete Works of Jonathan Edwards: op. cit., (Kindle Location 4784-4810)

[8] See King James Version.  The NIV has “the basic principles of the world.”

[9] Adam Clarke: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[10] Colossians 2:8; 2:20

[11] Charles John Ellicott: New Testament Commentary for English Readers, 1878, loc. cit.

[12] James Macknight: Apostolical Epistles, op. cit., pp. 168-169

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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