In his The Law and The Elementa of The World An Exegetical Study In Aspects of Pauls Teaching
(1964), AJ Bandstra helpfully describes the Greek term stoicheion / stoicheia as a “formal” term. By that he means that it has “by itself no specific content” but “receives its ‘specific content’ from the context in which it is used” (33). The English “element” has a similarly formal character, referring to the constituents of the physical world, the bread and wine of the Supper, wind and rain as “elements” of nature.
In various contexts, the word can mean letters or phonemes, the simplest aspects of rhythm and meter, musical notes, basic rules of political life, mathematical axioms that are basic to proofs, components of the physical world (the four elements), the geometric figures from which the physical world takes rise (Plato’s triangles). Despite this variety, the word consistently has the sense of basic, foundational, or fundamental. In whatever context it’s used, it has the sense of the English “elementary” (38-39).
That is fairly standard in discussions of Pauline “elements,” but Bandstra also thinks the evidence supports a connection between elements and “power.” Hence, stoicheia tou kosmou are the “fundamental forces of the cosmos.” Even in Jewish literature, where God is the cause of all, elements (in whatever sense) “exert influence upon this world and the affairs in it” (43). According to Bandstra, in Paul’s usage before and outside Christ the law and the flesh function as these elementary forces shaping human life.