By Kyle Pope
Within the last few centuries a relatively new approach to eschatology has developed known as preterism, realized (or covenant) eschatology, or the AD 70 Doctrine. This view argues that all prophecies of Scripture have been fulfilled, there is no future Day of Judgment, bodily resurrection, or end of the world, but all allusions to these things were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. In defense of this doctrine its advocates have drawn an unusual interpretation of some wording in 2 Peter 3 that I would like to explore in this article.
Peter writes, “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Pet. 3:10). This is summarized in the next verse—“all these things will be dissolved” (3:11), and it is restated in the verse after that—“Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?” (3:12).
Preterists argue that the “heavens” and “earth” in this passage are not talking about the material heavens and earth, but should be understood as figures of speech describing the old Jewish System. The context of this passage disproves that assumption easily enough. Three verses before this, after mentioning that some will scoff Divine promises, Peter writes, “For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water” (2 Pet. 3:5-6). Of what world does this passage speak? It is obviously the material world. This could not be talking about the Mosaic system. It is describing the flood. It happened long before the time of Moses. This is talking about the physical, material universe. It is described as “the world (kosmos) that then existed,” and stands in contrast to what is mentioned in the next verse. Peter continues, “But the heavens and the earth which ARE NOW preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:7, emphasis mine). This is the same thing Peter calls “the heavens” and “the earth” in 3:10. To conclude otherwise we must twist this out of its context and read into the text an assumption that cannot not be supported by the rest of Scripture.
In spite of this, proponents of this view have drawn attention to a particular word used in 3:10 and 3:12, the word stoicheion, translated “elements.” Preterist Don K. Preston, in his article entitled, “The Passing of the Elements: 2 Peter 3:10” argues, “Paul wrote the same thing about the passing of the “elements” of the world as did Peter (2 Pet. 3:10-12). But Paul, in discussing the passing of the “elements” of the world, wrote exclusively of the passing away of the “elements” of Old Covenant Israel” (https://www.preteristarchive.com/Hyper/0000_preston_elements.html). Let’s test this argument and see if it is correct.
Stoicheion (στοιχεῖον) refers to, “any first thing, from which the others belonging to some series or composite whole take their rise, an element, first principal” (Thayer). It was a broad term used in many ways. It could apply to the basic sounds used in speech (Plato, Cratylus 424d), or even letters in the alphabet (Apollonius Dyscolus, de Syntaxi 313.7). In fact the phrase kata stoicheion could mean “alphabetically” (Greek Anthology 11.15). To the ancients this was the term used in science and physics to describe the basic substances from which all things were composed (Plato, Theatetus 201e; et al.). This is how it is used in the Jewish apocryphal text, known as The Wisdom of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) written before the New Testament (7:17; 19:18). It could be used in mathematics and geometry of the elements of proof (Aristotle, Metaphysics 998a). It was used of fundamental principles of thought or philosophy (Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.1.1). It could be used to refer to the stars or planets (Manetho, 4.624), which is how the Greek-English Lexicon, edited by Liddell, Scott, and Jones classify its use in 2 Peter 3:10, Galatians 4:3, and Colossians 2:8. I don’t necessarily agree with that classification, but I find it interesting that the most respected lexicon of the Greek language throughout the world understands it in that way.
Stoicheion is used seven times in the New Testament; two of which are in 2 Peter. The first two come in Galatians, but possibly in two different ways. In speaking to the Jewish element among the churches in Galatia Paul explains, “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (3:24-25). He then explains that now, in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (3:28), explaining that all in Christ are “Abraham’s seed” (3:29). He characterizes their condition before Christ (whether Jew or Gentile) as children under “guardians and stewards” (4:1-2). He then uses stoicheion, in reference to this condition, explaining, “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements (stoicheion) of the world (cosmos)” (4:3). Is this talking about the basic principles of Mosaic Law? Perhaps. The next point he makes is that Christ came, “to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (4:5). The problem is that Paul then uses the term again. He writes:
But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements (stoicheion), to which you desire again to be in bondage? (4:8-9).
It is true that the Galatians (both Jews and Gentiles) were trying to turn back to the old law, but only the Gentiles among them once “served those which by nature are not gods.” Yet, Paul says to them as well that they were trying to return to the “weak and beggarly elements” that once held them in bondage. The Gentile was never under Mosaic Law, but the point Paul made earlier was that their condition before Christ (whether Jew or Gentile) was a childish, elementary state in which they were not yet mature and liberated by Christ. This suggests that stoicheion is not being used narrowly of the Mosaic Law alone, but rather of the “ABCs” (so to speak) of their childish state of bondage before coming to Christ.
The next two examples come in Colossians, where Paul likely uses it in a very similar way. Unlike the churches in Galatia, the problem was not as narrow as just turning back to Mosaic Law. It also included turning to worldly philosophies. He warns them, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles (stoicheion) of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). Like Galatians, Paul speaks of the stoicheion “of the world,” but also like Galatians there appears to be a Jew and Gentile element being addressed. The phrase “the traditions of men” may allude to Jewish rabbinical traditions (cf. “the tradition of the elders,” Matt. 15:2; Mark 7:3, 5), but the warning against “philosophy” is likely more aimed at those tempted to follow after the itinerant Greek and Roman philosophers so common in the ancient world (cf. Acts 17:18).
In both Galatians and Colossians it would be too narrow to say that the use of stoicheion only means the elements of the Mosaic system, both are talking about the elementary, now childish, weak, and insufficient condition the Jew and Gentile faced before coming to Christ. He challenges them not to return to such a condition by abandoning the gospel of Christ.
The final example comes in Hebrews. Like the epistle to the churches in Galatia, the audience of Jewish Christians to whom this book is also addressed is also urged not to go back to Judaism. However, in the passage where stoicheion is used it has nothing to do with Mosaic Law. It is not even used as it was in Galatians and Colossians. In the course of explaining how the Old Testament pointed to Jesus, the writer offers a parenthetical rebuke to his readers, recognizing that they were too spiritually immature to grasp the things he was teaching them. Having just addressed Melkizedek, he writes, “of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles (stoicheion) of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Heb. 5:11-12). Notice, he says he can’t tell them more because they don’t yet know the basics—“the first principles (stoicheion) of the oracles of God.” Preterists assert that what he means is first principles of Mosaic Law, but we should note that he explains exactly what he means three verses later. He writes, “Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection” (Heb. 6:1a). He does not use stoicheion here—the phrase is tēs archēs tou Christou (lit. “the beginning of the Christ”). This is talking about the elementary principles of faith in Christ. Remember, he describes them as babes (5:13). They are already in Christ.
How do we know that he is not talking about elements of the Mosaic Law that pointed to Christ? For one thing because that is what he has already been talking to them about. He is rebuking them because they don’t understand the basics of the gospel, making it even harder for them to understand Old Testament principles that pointed to Christ. But we also know this from the things he lists as “elementary principles of Christ.” He urges them to move past the basics, which he calls the “foundation of”—1) “repentance from dead works” and 2) “of faith toward God” (6:1b). Yes, Mosaic Law involved faith and repentance, but it is obedience to the gospel that involves “repentance from dead works” (i.e. repentance from sins, or works such as the Old Covenant that could not longer save). He lists further, 3) “of the doctrine of baptisms”; 4) “of laying on of hands”; 5) “of resurrection of the dead” and 6) “of eternal judgment” (6:2). The Mosaic system did not teach baptism accept as seen in the teaching of John. We should note, however, that this is not the normal noun baptisma (βάπτισμα), but baptismos (βαπτισμός), leading some to translate this “of the doctrine of washings” (DBY). Most translators render this with some reference to baptism (or baptisms), but even if it alludes to old ceremonial washings, I think Thayer explains it correctly, “of washing prescribed by the Mosaic law (Heb. 9:10) which seems to mean an exposition of the difference between the washings prescribed by the Mosaic Law and Christian baptism.” While Mosaic Law said much about the priest laying hands on offerings (Lev. 3:2, 8, 13; 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33; 16:21; 24:14; Num. 8:12) the Jewish people’s involvement in laying on of hands was minimal (Num. 8:10). On the other hand, under Christ, during the age of miraculous spiritual gifts, the laying on of the apostles’ hands was the way by which the Holy Spirit was given (Acts 8:18). The teaching concerning this is what allowed Christians taught by those who had received the laying of hands to have confidence that their teachings were inspired by God (cf. 2 Tim. 1:6). Finally, he includes resurrection and final judgment among things he calls “elementary principles.” Clearly, obedience to Mosaic Law did not promise a resurrection from the dead—this was an elementary doctrine of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-13). So we can conclude that the Hebrew writer is not using stoicheion as a reference to principles of the Law of Moses, but to the basic principles that constitute faith in Christ—the “ABCs” (so to speak) of being a Christian.
So how does this relate to its use in 2 Peter 3:10 and 12. We have shown that the immediate context shows clearly that he is talking about the physical heavens and earth in contrast to the world before the flood (3:5-7). We have also shown that stoicheion is not used universally in Scripture to refer to the Mosaic system, but to the childish incomplete state of Jew and Gentile before coming to Christ (in Galatians and Colossians) and to basic principles of faith in Christ (in Hebrews). The most reasonable conclusion then, from the context of 2 Peter is that the apostle is talking about the material universe and therefore the most basic elements from which it is composed. Peter says these will “melt,” be “burned up,” be “dissolved,” and “pass away.” The preterist arguments on this passage cannot be sustained by the text.