None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church. (Ensign, Nov. 1997, p. 4.)
I suggest we give President Hinckley the benefit of greater knowledge and not judge him as if we know everything he knows.
Here is one thing we might consider. I have 1995 and 1997 copies of Gospel Principles. The paragraph Luke Wilson quotes from page 9 in the 1992 edition is the same in the 1995 edition. But in the 1997 edition, that paragraph changed.
Both versions of the paragraph answer the question "What Kind of Being Is God?" Notice that the revised 1997 text was approved in June 1996, more than a year before the Time magazine article was published.
English approval: 5/95 — 1995 printing:
The Prophet Joseph Smith said: "If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible — I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345). God is a glorified and perfected man, a personage of flesh and bones (see D&C 130:22). Inside his tangible body is an eternal spirit.
English approval: 6/96 — 1997 printing:
Because we are made in his image (see Moses 6:9), we know that God has a body that looks like ours. His eternal spirit is housed in a tangible body of flesh and bones (see D&C 130:22). God's body, however, is perfected and glorified, with a glory beyond all description.
In light of his response to Time magazine, I think we can safely say President Hinckley was involved in the process that led to the 1996 textual changes on p. 9 in Gospel Principles. Those changes support exactly what he said to Time senior correspondent Richard Ostling:
I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. I haven't heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don't know. I don't know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it.
In 1997, it had been twenty years since the phrase "as man is, God once was" had even been mentioned in General Conference. The most recent General Conference quotation of that part of the couplet was in Spencer W. Kimball's talk, "Our Great Potential," (Ensign, May 1977, pp. 49 & 50) which emphasizes the second half of the couplet, "and as God is, man may become." President Kimball didn't elaborate on the first part of the couplet at all.
In 1974, Lorenzo Snow was quoted in the Ensign saying, "As man is, God once was—even the babe of Bethlehem" which quite obviously doesn't even refer to God the Father.
I think what we teach and emphasize is that God is a glorified and perfected man — what God IS. The doctrine we don't teach and emphasize so much is "as man is, God once was" — what God WAS. Really now, how much has been revealed about what God was, about the earth he lived on or the conditions of his life there? Personally, I think President Hinckley was absolutely correct. I think we "understand the philosophical background behind it" but, as he said, "I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it."