The last “political theological” book I read was D. A. Carson’s Christ and culture revisited. I summarised that work as leaning towards a biblical-theology treatment of the study as a critique and corrective to Reinhold Niebuhr’s models of how Christ and culture relate to each other.

Os Guinness' is more cultural or social critic than biblical scholar, and it shows. He bases many of his arguments on Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, writing in the introduction that “the vision of freedom outlined here owes everythign to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and the wise and brilliant understanding of Rabbi Sacks…”

I appreciated that a mainstream Protestant is keen to bring Jewish biblical thought to a wider audience and think that Christians can greatly benefit from engaging with different approaches to biblical interpretation.


This book is about freedom.

The best single line summary of Os Guinness' thesis is the refrain which concludes each chapter “America cannot endure permanently half 1776 and half 1789…” For the author, 1776 represents the American Declaration of Independence, whereas 1789 represents the French Revolution. He argues that the principles of America’s founding fathers is rooted in what he calls the “Sinai Revolution,” which refers to God’s redemptive activities in Exodus.

In the introduction, Os writes that freedom in America today is at stake, with the nation largely split between two camps - those aligned with the principles of 1776 and those aligned with that of 1789.

These seven principles form the backbone of Os' exposition of the Magna Carta of Humanity.

  1. Principle 1: Freedom requires authority - exploring God’s sovereign freedom.
  2. Principle 2: Freedom must be grounded and authorised - exploring humanity’s freedom derived from being created in God’s image.
  3. Principle 3: Freedom must be realistic - exploring freedom’s greatest enemy - itself.
  4. Principle 4: Freedom must be won - exploring God’s freeing of the Israelites from Egypt.
  5. Principle 5: Freedom must be ordered and cultivated - exploring the covenant the Israelites freely entered with God at Sinai.
  6. Principle 6: Freedom must be celebrated and handed on - exploring the importance of education to maintaining freedom.
  7. Principle 7: Address wrongs, but in the right way - exploring the way of the left versus the way of the prophets.

This book is also heavily indebted to the Rabbi Heschel and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, especially the latter’s Covenant & Conversation series.


Os Guinness is incisive in his analysis and eloquent in his defense and elaboration of the true, the good and the beautiful nature and vision of freedom that Sinai propounds, and makes a compelling case - but only to those who are already sympathetic with his position. Arugably, the main dichotomy Os Guinness sets up, Sinai and 1776 America versus 1789 Paris, is fair, although I have concerns about how he applies these contrasts to America today.

Despite being a Christian, he draws extensively on Jewish frames of references and interpretation of key Old Testament texts, especially Genesis and Exodus. Reading these sections were refreshing. Os Guinness clearly wanted to find common ground and I think he does so with respect.

The chapters on the “covenantal vision” of Exodus and the importance of “transmission” through education were well structured and argued. He paints a clear and grand picture of what could be if his American(?) readers frequently drank from the deep wells of its rich history.


The author writes with passion, but it can come across as lacking empathy and understanding of the “other side.” When he talks about the threats to freedom today, the dangers he identifies are mostly, if not almost exclusively, from the Left. There are rare instances of him mentioning the less savoury characters and things that the Right produce.

If the progressive left is threatening freedom today, what’s the solution? Os Guinness doesn’t explicitly state “the conservative right,” but it is implied. Because in America, there is realistically only two options if people want to make political change. But those who profess allegiance to Sinai and 1776 often don’t behave any better than their revolutionary counterparts.

Furthermore, he doesn’t engage adequately with the concerns of the left. Why are they upset, angry and aggressive? Os Guinness identifies societal problems like racism and inequality, but does not offer solutions. He writes about the need for forgiveness and tells powerful anecdotes, but I doubt that’s going to be enough. I was hoping for him to challenge or motivate those who hold to the principles of Sinai and 1776 to take positive action.

Closing thoughts and who should read it

For me, the biggest benefit of this work is introducing, or should I say, re-introducing Jewish thought back into Western Christianity. Chapter 1 on God’s self-identification was hands down my favourite chapter. The way he used “freedom” as the controlling narrative of the book is a model of good political theology rooted in (Judeo-Christian) exegesis.

As a Christian, I don’t deny that Os has accurately identified that America faces a crisis of freedom, and I wholeheartedly agree with the Sinai, or should I say Jewish, or Judeo-Christian, principles on which true freedom - like that of 1776 America - must be founded and maintained. However, I think the solution he proposes might work at the level of personal conviction, and maybe a small conservative, Christian community, but it will not be able to drive impactful political action and change.

Chapter summaries

  • Introduction: Upside Down or Right way Up?
  • Os Guinness identifies the “American crisis” as a crisis of freedom, arguing that America is divided by the ideals of two competing revolutions: the 1776 American revolution (rooted in what he calls the Exodus/Sinai Revolution) and the 1789 French Revolution. He argues (naturally) that the way forward is to return to the principles of the Exodus/Sinai Revolution, and the next seven chapters outline “the great foundational Exodus truth for building a free and responsible society…”
  1. Chapter 1: I will be who I will be
  • This chapter is largely an exploration of the “freedom of God,” especially in his revealing his name to Moses at the burning bush. Emphasising the future aspect of God’s Name, faith is therefore forward looking, truly free and truly revolutionary. Knowing or rejecting God therefore has ramifications and the final section considers the alternative “gods” humanity was worship when they choose to displace God as the source of all that humans desire.
  1. Chapter 2: Like the Absolutely Unlike: The Great Declaration
  • Os Guinness draws out four implications of the “Genesis declaration” that all humans are created in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). The first is that existence has meaning because God cares for his people. The second is that human beings have inherent dignity and worth. The third is that it provides the foundation for the “equality of dignity.” The fourth is that because all human beings have dignity, there is and should be justice for all. He critiques current trends in America, arguing that these are inferior to the vision the “Genesis declaration” offers.
  1. Chapter 3: East of Eden: The Great Alienation
  • Freedom, however good, is also dangerous. Os Guinness shows that freedom is freedom’s greatest enemy because the problem is how humans use it, or pursue it wrongly. That is the “paradox of freedom” and we need to be realistic and humble to acknowledge that we are part of the problem before we can truly make progress.
  1. Chapter 4: Let My People Go: The Great Liberation
  • This chapter focuses on the conflict between God and the Egyptian gods or powers. Os Guinness argues that God demonstrates his free sovereignty in rescuing the Israelites, but that doesn’t remove humanity’s responsibility. Pharaoh is held accountable, and the Israelites are invited, rather than coerced(?) to freely submit to God’s rule.
  1. Chapter 5: Set Free to Live Free Together: The Great Constitution
  • The first section is about trust and its corrosion, and how the “covenantal vision of Exodus” offers an alternative. The rest of the chapter explores the covenantal-constitutional elements of Exodus, with socio-philosophical discussions on the inter-connectedness between freedom, responsibility and love. On freedom, he considers negative vs positive freedom and emphasises the corporate character of freedom as expressed in covenantal relationships.
  1. Chapter 6: Passing It On: The Great Transmission
  • Freedom must be transmitted to the next generation, otherwise it will be forgotten and eventually lost, that’s knowing our history is crucial. As Os Guinness writes, “America has to go backwards to go forward” (or something to that extent).
  1. Chapter 7: Putting Wrong Right: The Great Restoration, Part 1
  • He contrasts Sinai vs “the left,” tracing the history behind the revolutionary left. One strong feature is the contrast of freedom, love, responsibility and control, hatred, power-grabbing selfishness.
  1. Chapter 8: Putting Wrong Right: The Great Restoration, Part 2
  • He argues that the best way forward is 1) realism and responsibility (or confession of sins), 2) justice, 3) repentance and 4) forgiveness.

I was graciously given an advance review copy of this book through NetGalley for an honest review.

Guinness, Os. 2021. The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.