Twice in Galatians Chapter 4, Paul referred to the “elementary principles.” In the first instance, the term refers to the Law that bound the Jews. The second involves Gentiles, and it has a dual meaning. The phrase “turn back” associates “elementary principles” with pagan idolatry (which the Gentiles had once practiced) as well as the Law (which they were embracing due to the Judaizers’ influence. Neither of these had the power to save them.
The Law served as a necessary tool leading up to the time when Christ would come. A child needs tangible help to understand abstract ideas. God used visible images and parables to communicate with Israel when they were in their infancy. Children today go to “elementary school” to acquire the basic tools of learning. They must know the alphabet and numbers before they can learn skills in reading and math. Without these basics, the whole process of education would be impossible. Once a child grasps the elementary principles, he moves on to “secondary education.” In a similar way the Law served its purpose, but after Christ came there was no reason to return to it.
As an educator, we never tell a student who has gotten to high school to return to elementary school. Skills learned in grade school are expected to be retained in high school. The things of the Law should have been learned and the student expected to go forward. This doesn’t mean that the student might not have to go back and review things learned earlier. Sometimes we go back to the Old Testament to see lessons taught there, but not back into the system of worshipping God according to the Law.