Rules, Principles, Seeds & Shells, Part I

Andrew Sbook of mormon, faith, LDS, Mormon, obedience, scripture, testimony, theology 8 Comments

I sometimes wonder where the 32nd chapter of Alma would rank in a list of most iconic scriptures in the entire Book of Mormon. It comes up frequently in discussions, so I have plenty of times to revisit it. I think the reason for this is that it introduces a powerful image that — in every sense of the word — is planted within the mind…and sprouts. And so we start…with a single small seed.

single seed

The seed is a versatile image and metaphor because it is the start of everything: the start of every life; the start of every endeavor; the start of every idea. The start of every being and the start of every becoming. The 32nd chapter of Alma talks about the Word being a seed, and from there we learn just what we can expect from a single seed.

[Story 1]

The Word is a seed that we must take the chance to plant first, and which, hopefully, if we do plant it, will germinate, sprout and grow, enlarging our souls and enlightening our minds.

In my last post, commenter st1305 wrote that there cannot be faith in a false idea, because faith is not simply belief. Faith, instead, is the application of a belief that enlarges the soul and enlightens the mind, as Alma 32: 34 and 35 also describe. A false idea, he argued, would not enlarge the soul and enlighten the mind. What st1305 wrote was interesting:

This is true for all of the other principles that I apply in my life – chastity, honesty, integrity, temple work, missionary work and a host of other principles in my faith. I know they are true as I have applied them and I see the fruits and they are good.

I saw a distinction between the ideas that st1305 was raising, however. Principles like honesty, integrity and service differ from ones like temple work or tithing in that the former are universal and general, but the latter are specific and particular implementations as found within the church. In some cases, they are rules that at best seek to capture a more general principle.

The LDS church does not have any sort of exclusive claim on a principle like chastity, even if they do have claims to particular stipulations of the law of chastity. But from here is the first question…what is it that enlarges our soul and enlightens our mind? The rule…or the principle?

I believe it is the principle. When we lose sight of the principles for rules, then our faith becomes Pharisaical. Hollow.

A dangerous new thought sprouted forth: wouldn’t we do best to focus on principles without relying so much on rules?

[/Story 1]

Any day now, America will (if the adoption date ever stops pushing back) migrate away from the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) that we have historically used to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).

Supporters of IFRS argue that the change will increase comparability of financial statements — instead of comparing apples to oranges, we’ll all be comparing oranges. In addition, since IFRS is more principles-based, IFRS will not encourage abuse of the brightline rules that US GAAP has.

Let me try to explain the difference using a non-accounting example.

Speed Limit 40

[Story 2]

When we drive, we operate under a basic principle: we want our driving experience to be safe. To satisfy this principle, we develop certain rules, such as the speed limit.

US GAAP sets clear and easy-to-understand (that is, “bright line”) speed limits with directly measurable values. A 40 mile per hour speed limit gives everyone a clear boundary — you can be ticketed for going over 40. Some cops may allow some higher speeds to slide, but if you get caught, the rules are clear.

Everyone is justified to go up to 40 mph, and can do so whenever possible with legal protection.

What could be bad about this? How could this possibly be abused? 40 miles per hour isn’t even that fast…

Let’s say that the speed limit is the ultimate rule for speed and you are driving in terrible weather. In this case, couldn’t you see how a simple, clear-cut rule could backfire and fail to establish our principle (and principal) goal of maintaining safety?

…Yet, creating exceptions for every occurrence would just create a tremendous driver’s manual (not to mention street signs!) In the case of accounting scandals, it wouldn’t even work to prevent frauds before they are perpetuated. New rules always are a step behind the crooks.

So what if instead we had no bright line speed limit numbers, but instead we were given the principle, “Drive safely given the environment”? This extreme case highlights the allure of IFRS.

Drivers wouldn’t have a rule to which they could hug close. However, rule enforcers also wouldn’t have a rule to which they could hug close. If a police officer disagreed with you on the optimally safe speed, you would have no bright line precedent of speed limit to back up your case.

In accounting, we have a bit of a different issue. Normally, in a court, you don’t easily win against a police officer. However, in a court, groups can win against the auditor. Additionally, auditors are hired by the firms they audit, so they have (at least) two incentives: 1) to make sure their clients stay in business and 2) to make decisions that are less likely to be challenged in courts. With clear-cut rules, the audit firm can at least defend its decisions both to clients and juries by saying, “We play according to the rules.” But without clear-cut rules, the courts do not have clear-cut rules with which to crucify (or protect), and auditors do not have the mechanism to challenge more fiscally aggressive clients.

So the big push against principles-based accounting is that it too does not prevent against fraud but instead gives ne’er-do-well executives even greater flexibility to report financial information aggressively. Ne’er-do-well execs can argue that really, 80 miles per hour is always safe, no matter the road conditions. In addition, supporters of GAAP note that the P in GAAP already is “principles,” and a balance of clear rules and principles (like the balance of speed limits with principles of safety in less-ideal conditions) is best.

[/Story 2]


When I thought about the audit and accounting example, I began to realize that the rules are valuable for inculcating the principles. Sure, sometimes they can be abused (our rules-based accounting did not prevent Enron, and in the aftermath, some research has suggested that technically, no violations of GAAP or auditing standards took place. Enron simply worked creatively and aggressively within the legal boundaries), but in this case we need to balance re-tweak rules for the sake of the principles, not eliminate one or the other.


The next thing I thought about, as a result of thinking about accounting standards, is the fact that there are many sets of accounting standards seeking after the same principles. What comparison can we make with seeds and the Word? You’ll have to stay tuned for next week’s entry!

Comments 8

  1. “most iconic scriptures in the entire Book of Mormon.”

    Alma 32, Moroni 10:3-5, the chapter on charity (Moroni 8?), Nephi explaining Christ’s baptism (1 Ne 32?), “I will go and do” (1 Ne 3:7), King Benjamin’s address Mosiah 3-5, “pray over your farms, fields,etc” Alma ??

    That’s a good start.

  2. Post
  3. Pingback: New Post, New Design « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  4. Andrew,

    At a cursory glance, it appears like you are trying to rationalize why you should have to live a set of rules. I base this judgment on two things:

    1) You left out a key quote, in the middle of the paragraph of mine you quoted. You took out “For example, I may believe the law of tithing is right (or stupid), but I will not have faith in it until I apply the principle”. It is as if you want to push aside any discussion of rules, but then post a new thread on rules. It was a willful and wanton decision to pull this sentence out of my quote. It makes me question why. Tithing, like so many other commandments, is one of many eternal rules outlined by God. The rules are eternal and have latest forever. It is obedience to these rules that all blessings are predicated.

    2) Your tone. You again pointed out the LDS church does not have exclusive rights to truth. You keep bringing this up in a defensive tone in spite of the fact no one in any position of authority has made this claim. I reiterate my response in the previous post “As for your other judgment, I never said Mormons own the truth. Truth is truth and can come from a Mormon, Cowboy, Buddhist or Atheist. With this said, I believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Days Saints contains the fullness of truth. Not so much because I believe it is contained in our canonized scripture; but, because we have a living oracle – a true prophet of God.”

    I state what I said another way. The only way you are going to come to a knowledge these rules are from God is to live them and see the blessings the stem from these rules. The windows of heaven will be open if the live the law of tithing. We will be filled with love if we live the law of chastity. We will walk and not be weary and run and not faint if we live the word of wisdom. We will become closer to our family by doing temple work. We will find true joy by doing missionary work. In final I reiterate my definition of faith ‘Faith is the application of a belief that enlarges your soul and enlightens your mind’.

  5. Post


    Thanks for commenting. I’m not exactly sure that the way I would put what I am trying to accomplish here as “rationalizing why you should have to live a set of rules,” but let’s go with that.

    1) To try to explain, the reason I truncated your comment was not to try to dismiss a part of it, but to try to save space (my neurosis, I guess you could say, is a “target” blog length. It already forced this blog post into at least two.) To address the idea of tithing, I would put that in the grouping of specific and proprietary rules that seeks to capture the essence of general principles. So, I think instead of pushing out your discussion of rules, I’m trying to include it with my discussion.

    I do have a bit of a reaction to one thing you said…The rules are decidedly not eternal and they do not last forever. Many of our commandments have changed given the dispensation, the group to which they are directed, or the increased or decreased capacity or willingness of the people to which they were directed to live by them. For example, tithing vs. law of consecration.

    However, from these transitory rules, we *can* seek eternal principles from them. Seems to fit my theory. These eternal principles, whatever they are and from wherever they spring, can be discovered, as you say, by faithful application of the principle.

    2) I’ve heard a quote, “Never attribute to malice that which could be adequately explained by stupidity.” I guess, in this case, I’d probably want to say, “Never attribute to defensiveness what could be attributed to stupidity.” I can deal with claims of my stupidity, but defensiveness?

    When I point out that the LDS church does not have exclusive rights to truth, I am not mentioning it in any sort of “tone,” just pointing it out. Since you agree that no one of authority has made such a claim, you should have no problem with my pointing it out.

    My point is this: as you point out, the way we come to a knowledge of these rules (you say a knowledge that they are from God; I say that they are good, beneficial, and right) is to live them and see the blessings that stem from these rules. My point is that the “windows of heaven” will open in a number of situation (because truth can come from a Buddhist, a Mormon, an atheist, a cowboy, as you said), and that the windows of heaven opening is the goal, not the mechanism by which we accomplish the goal (the law of tithing.) My point is that we will be filled with love through a number of attitudes and actions (because truth can come from a Buddhist, a Mormon, an atheist, a cowboy, as you said), and that being filled with love is the goal, not the mechanism by which we accomplish the goal (the law of chastity). My point is that we will walk and not be weary and run and not be faith under a number of situations (because truth can come from a Buddhist, a Mormon, an atheist, and a cowboy, as you said), and that walking and not being weary is the goal, not the mechanism by which we achieve the goal (the Word of Wisdom). And so on and so on.

    But my final point is this: even if these principles our are principal goal, and they can be found in any situation, rules are crucial for us to stumble upon these principles. They give us a structured way to cultivate the principles and enjoy the benefits.

  6. Andrew,

    I did hedge using ‘appears, cursory and trying’; however, I still acknowledge a poor choice of words. Allow me to rephrase.

    This is going to be somewhat of a confession and when I was in a significant leadership position in the Church my wife constantly remained me of the bad influence it was on me and my kids. Since being released, I can now watch it again without guilt. With that said, one of my favorite shows is the Simpsons. I love the political satire and smart-allec humor. Probably an explanation for by trailer trash comment in the previous post.

    In one episode (warning a perception of blasphemous behavior), the character playing God answered a question to one person one way and then gave another person a different answer on the same question. Later in the episode they all converged in the same location at the same time and the topic came up. Immediately, God darted from the room. I did not find it blasphemous as it was an inaccurate description of God. He would only tell the truth.

    True, I said truth CAN be found in all these places; however, at some point there are differences and only one can have the Truth. This is how I view the LDS church as it compares to other religions. Again, it is the only source of all truth. This is chiefly due to the fact we have a Prophet that communes with God.

  7. Post


    No need to apologize for watching the Simpsons, dude.

    What I will try to discuss in the next article in the series is what it can mean to find truth in many (perhaps all) places…what it means to have truth be found in these many places even though there are differences…and then what it means for there to be one group that has the Truth.

    I think the reason that truth can be found in many places is because many different *rules* can reach the correct principles.

    However, if you don’t have the correct principles and aren’t seeking them, then you won’t have the truth. So, in my reading, when you say “This is how I view the LDS church as it compares to other religions. Again, it is the only source of all truth. This is chiefly due to the fact we have a Prophet that communes with God,” then what seems to me to be the case is that the church is aligned with all correct principles and the Prophet, in communion with God, distills the principles with rules and commandments to achieve these principles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *