Ancient Hebrew poetry is awash in descriptions of God’s anger. Classical prophecy, many of the Psalms, the book of Job fall apart conceptually if one removes this element from the whole.
Let's assume, as do legal systems and ethical codes without exception, that there is a principle of justice that transcends polities, family units, and individuals. For the sake of argument, let us identify the arbiter of said justice with the beginning and end of history, with a transcendent "one," conceived of in personal terms, as do monotheistic and, mutatis mutandis, polytheistic religions. Is it possible to speak truthfully about this "one," this God, without language that refers to anger? Over the long haul, I'm not sure it is.
The question in Judaism and Christianity of the Roman and later periods receives sustained attention. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Jewish philosopher and biblical exegete, reinterpreted the God-talk of the Bible in light of God-talk of (particular versions of) Greek philosophy in which God is understood to be an unmoved mover. Philo thought of references in the Pentateuch to God's anger and jealousy as a concession to the need to bring to wisdom those who cannot leave foolishness behind unless motivated by fear. At the same time, within Judaism and Christianity of the Roman and later periods, God-talk characteristic of philosophy has been relativized in light of God-talk in the Bible. For example, a fourth century Christian philosopher and court theologian, Lactantius, claimed that it is fitting and necessary to speak of the wrath of God.
A frequent end result of the interpenetration of theology and philosophy: a synthesis greater than the sum of its parts; also, a juxtaposition of elements in unresolved tension. The tension might be taken to be the best of all possible outcomes, on the assumption that some conceptual conflicts will not and cannot be resolved given the limits of human knowledge of the noumenal - a point developed by Kant in his critique of metaphysics; Kant nonetheless conceived of metaphysical assertions - within the bounds of reason as he understood reason - to be essential regulators of thought and life.
One of the great strengths of patristic theology is its “et/et-ness.” For example, the Fathers maintained belief in the immortality of the soul, a doctrine with a wide currency in the religious koiné of their environment, and which they saw no reason to abandon. They held no less to belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead, and to the hope of the resurrection of the flesh among the “last things” that God will accomplish. These last teachings are central to Christianity quite apart from and in advance of the later patristic synthesis.
The Fathers sought a synthesis of apparently irreconcilable tenets. In the process, originally unrelated conceptual complexes came in for mutual redefinition.
The making of doctrine in all times and places, covertly or overtly, involves redefinition by means of assimilation and appropriation of concepts, motifs, and stimuli external to precedent tradition. The patristic period stands out nonetheless for the intense creativity of the assimilatory process at work within it. Something new came into the world as a result.
A recent attempt at capturing the truth contained in the teaching of the impassibility of God is found in the current Catholic catechism, paragraph 271:
God’s almighty power is in no way arbitrary: “In God, power, essence, will, intellect, wisdom, and justice are all identical. Nothing therefore can be in God’s power which could not be in his just will or his wise intellect.”
The quotation is from the Summa of Thomas. The original reads thus:
[I]n Deo est idem potentia et essentia et voluntas et intellectus et sapientia et iustitia. Unde nihil potest esse in potentia divina, quod non possit esse in voluntate iusta ipsius, et in intellectu sapiente eius. (STh I, 25, 5, ad 1)
I would translate as follows:
In God, power, being, will, intelligence, wisdom and justice are one and the same, such that nothing can exist by divine power that cannot exist in virtue of the just will of same, and in his sapient intelligence.
Thomas affirms that God can do nothing that is incompatible with his justice, will, and wisdom. With the further proviso that God’s will coincides with God’s love – that is, that God’s will, too, is in no way arbitrary - a definition of the impassibility of God adjusted to the biblical witness is in hand.
On this view, the unchanging initiative of God, while autonomous by definition and resolved upon by God in aseity from all else and all others, gives rise nevertheless to a history in which change serves precisely to maintain unchanged the original initiative.
If this is true, it is not necessarily helpful to speak of biblical God-talk of divine anger, repentance, and sadness as no more than "metaphorical" ways of speaking about a God who is never angry, never repents, and is never sad.
The same Catholic catechism speaks of hatred, aversion, fear, and anger in positive, not just negative terms, as if it were a heresy to think that it is possible not to do so. Part of a larger essay on passions and the moral life, paragraph 1765 notes the following:
The apprehension of evil causes hatred, aversion, and fear of the impending evil; this movement ends in sadness at some present evil, or in the anger that resists it.
Said passions, it might be added, are salutary to the extent that they originate in a right comprehension of justice, love, and wisdom. Regardless of whether one is Catholic or not, it can be affirmed that the catechism’s paragraphs 1767-1770 contain valuable insights.
Jewish and Christian discourse describes God, in whom it is thought we live and move and have our being, who is justice, love, and wisdom in perfect unity, as one who regrets evil and resists it with all due animosity. At the same time, it is often asserted that God is incorporeal and subject in no sense to goings-on in a temporal horizon. Tension-filled synthesis has always characterized the best Jewish and best Christian theology; both are ongoing enterprises in the 21st century. The fact is of interest to theologians, a-theologians, and anti-theologians alike.
The trigger for this short essay: Doug Chaplin's reflections on the first of the 39 articles of the Church of England (here). Doug responds to this post here, and to further online discussion on the topic of divine (im)passibility here (note comment thread). Lactantius, an early defender of divine passibility, is the subject of a recent dissertation by a University of Southern California classicist, Kristina Ann Meinking: Anger Matters: Politics and Theology in the Fourth Century CE (pdf here). A quote of interest: "With an appropriate object and when it is employed for the sake of justice, anger has a fitting place, unlike the mere desire for revenge on account of which the Stoics (argues Lactantius) view anger as a negative attribute" (103).