Elements (στοιχεῖα). The etymon both of the English and Greek word conveys their primary meaning: thus, elements, from "elementa," the alimenta from which things are m de, and στοιχεῖα, from στείχω, "to go up by steps" — the first principles whence the subsequent parts of things (στοιχοῦσι) proceed in order. It seems to have been believed, from a very early period, that all bodies consist of certain first, specific ingredients (στοιχεῖα), into which they are all resolvable, although different opinions prevailed respecting the number and nature of these primary constituents of things. Hesychius explains στοιχεῖα βψ πῦρ, ὕδωρ, γῆ, καὶ ἀήρ, ἀφ᾿ ῏ων τὰ σώματα — fire, water, earth, and air, of which bodies are formed. This, which is the simplest, may be called the primary sense of the word. A secondary use of the word relates to the organized parts of which anything is framed, as the letters of the alphabet (Hesychius gives also γράμματα), these being the elements of words; also the elements, rudiments, or first principles of any art or science.
The word occurs in its primary sense, Wis. 7:17, σύστασιν κόσμου καὶ εὐέργειαν στοιχείων, "the constitution of the world and the operation of the elements;" also 19:18. It is used in the same sense, 2Pe 3:10, στοιχεῖα δὲ καυσούμενα λυθήσονται, and verse 12, τήκεται, " the elements burning will be dissolved and melted." The Jews, in Peter's time, spoke of four elements (Josephus, Ant. 3:7, 7).
The word occurs in a secondary sense in Ga 4:3-9, τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, "the elements or rudiments of the world," which the apostle calls ἀσθενῆ καὶ πτωχὰ στοιχεῖα, "weak and poor elements." He introduces the word to preserve the unity of his comparison of the law to a pedagogue (3:24), and of persons under it to children under tutors; and by the elements or rudiments of the world he evidently means that state of religious knowledge which had subsisted in the world, among Jews and Gentiles, before Christ; the weakness of which, among the Jews, may be seen in Heb 7:18-19; Heb 10:1; and among the Gentiles, in the epistle to the Romans, passim. "The elements of the world" occurs again, Col 2:8-20, in the same sense, as appears from the various allusions both to the terms used in Grecian philosophy, and the dogmas of the Judaizers in the subsequent verses; the phrase being possibly suggested to the apostle by his previous use of it to the Galatians. The word στοιχεῖα, in Heb 5:12, is restricted, by the addition τῶν λογίων τοῦ Θεοῦ, to the rudiments of Christianity (see Rosenmuller and Benson on the passages).
II. In the Sacraments. — The materials used in the sacraments are called the elements. Water is the element of baptism, bread and wine are the elements of the Eucharist. "This use of the word 'elements' (στοιχεῖα) sprung from the philosophy of the school divines, and evidently had reference to the change supposed to take place after consecration. The Church of England has discarded the term in her services, and has introduced instead the word 'creatures' ('These thy creatures of bread and wine') in the communion-service, though the word 'elements' is found in one of the rubrics of that office" (Eden). "In all the Jewish sacrifices of which the people were partakers, the viands or materials of the feast were first made God's by a pious oblation, and then afterwards eaten by the communicants, not as man's, but as God's provisions, who, by thus entertaining them at his own table, declared himself reconciled, and again in covenant with them. And therefore our blessed Savior, when he instituted the new sacrament of his own body and blood, first gave thanks and blessed the elements — that is, offered them up to God as Lord of the creatures, as the most ancient fathers expound that passage; who for that reason, whenever they celebrated the holy Eucharist, always offered the bread and wine for the communion to God upon the altar by this or some short ejaculation: 'Lord, we offer thee thine own out of what thou hast bountifully given us' " (Bishop Patrick, cited by Hook, Church Dictionary, s.v.).